Inventing a communication revolution

 

Professor Lucy Rogers FREng’s career is not typical of many engineers: starting with engineering bubbles for firefighting, it has taken in television, animated dinosaurs and livening up university teaching, along with inventions that put the fun in engineering. And when she wanted to polish her communications skills, she turned to stand-up comedy for help.

Professor Lucy Rogers FREng © Karla Gowlett

Professor Lucy Rogers FREng says that her engineering career started with a bang. Her physics teacher ran a club based on the BBC’s Great Egg Race – a TV series that challenged participants to invent ways to complete various tasks, like seeing how far rubber-band propulsion could move an egg without breaking it. Rogers’s challenge was to set off a party popper from a distance using anything she could find in the lab. Rogers was working on her design – using a trolley, some weights and a lab stool with a hole in the middle – as the teacher marked homework. Roused by a bang from the back of the classroom, the teacher looked up and, as Rogers recounts it, said: “Lucy, you might need to be an engineer”.

“That was when engineering first hit my radar as a career,” she says. Keen on maths and physics, Rogers hadn’t yet worked out what she could do with them. The next nudge came on an ‘Insight into Engineering’ course run by Women in Science and Engineering and her fate was sealed. But there was a family connection to engineering: Rogers’s grandfather was a clockmaker and ‘play’ involved watching him making things on a lathe. Messing around in a workshop still comes naturally to Rogers, although it is more likely to involve electronics and computers than cogs and wheels.

PhD in bubbles

After A levels, Rogers studied a general engineering degree at Lancaster University and graduated in mechanical engineering. The sandwich course split time between lectures and industry, with a year in Newcastle “learning about industrial power and big power stations”. After graduation, Rogers took a postgraduate Advanced Course for Design Manufacturing and Management at the University of Cambridge and then earned, as she calls it, “a PhD in bubbles” as a part of the teaching company scheme (TCS) run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). This knowledge transfer project, supervised by Lancaster University, involved research in a company that made firefighting equipment to deal with petrochemical fires. Pouring water on a petrochemical fire causes the burning oil to rise to the top, so firefighters must smother fires with bubbles. The company had made foam-making equipment for years. “They wanted to refine it,” Rogers explains, “but didn’t quite know how it worked.” So, she set out to discover.

Foam creation, or bubble blowing, was far removed from egg race projects but it did involve using imagination to adapt existing tools and techniques. Rogers made Perspex copies of the company’s nozzles so that she could see what was happening in foam creation. She then adapted a high-speed video camera, running at 40,000 frames per second, to record her experiments so she could see in slow motion how bubbles were made. Rogers’s experimental kit filled the back of a Volvo estate car. The screen was massive and there was a VHS video recorder, another large device, but the carload of hardware achieved its purpose. “I was the first one to use high-speed video to see how bubbles are made.” The videos showed that there are three different ways to make bubbles, a discovery that led to the PhD in bubbles, or more formally “foam formation in low expansion firefighting equipment”.

“I wasn’t expecting to do a PhD,” she explains. But as part of the TCS course, she wrote up her research, which resulted in a PhD. It could have been a stepping stone for an engineering career, but Rogers disliked the sometimes sexist nature of the profession in the 1990s. She took on a different challenge: the fear that when clocks ticked over from 1999 to 2000, the world’s IT infrastructure would grind to a halt. This caused lurid headlines and near panic among computer users, but it was good work for IT professionals. Rogers set up a consultancy with a friend to tackle this and other IT problems. “It was lucrative, but it was boring,” she adds.

Reinvention as an inventor

In 2011 Rogers decided to reinvent herself again and took an intensive crash course at Singularity University. She explored ‘exponential technologies’, ideas that, while they may have seemed irrelevant at the time, had the potential to change the world. Two Silicon Valley luminaries, Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, set up this ‘boot camp’ “to help leaders navigate a world of accelerating change”. During her time there, Rogers encountered Google’s early autonomous vehicles, along with other technologies that, a decade later, have started to become mainstream, such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence and gene mapping.

Lucy sitting on an animatronic dinosaurTesting the robot dinosaurs at the manufacturers in China Singularity University, she says, “was all about looking ahead with a different perspective. I have got my eye on the future, but I no longer just look straight ahead with the blinkered view that I used to. I’ve got a fly’s eyes. There’s something over there and something over here that can help to solve this problem in the middle if I bring them together.”

Rogers returned to the UK and into a career that resembled her egg race days. “I like to say I am inventor with a sense of fun,” she says. More formally, she describes herself as an innovation consultant who solves problems, as well as an ‘engineering designer’. “Well, the Institution of Engineering Designers thinks so,” she says with a laugh. It has just offered her an Honorary Fellowship, in recognition of her work “in promotion of engineering and design to the public”. Communication has become another key component of Rogers’s multifaceted career. It was this role that led to her election as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Another label that Rogers works under is ‘freelance engineer’, a move made much easier by a significant engineering development: the development of the credit card-sized Raspberry Pi computer (‘Chips that changed the classroom’, Ingenia 72). A device designed to rescue IT teaching in the UK has given birth to a global community of engineers using Pis as the ‘brains’ in a multitude of technologies. “The Raspberry Pi is really brilliant,” Rogers enthuses. “When it came out in 2012, I found that electronics and computing were actually much better than I had thought at university.”

With the Pi Rogers could, as she puts it, “see a way to make gadgets and gizmos as a living”. Combining electronics and computing with mechanical engineering allowed Rogers’s creative imagination to run riot. She began with a toy dinosaur that responded when a tweet arrived, an invention that proved to be a great career move as toy dinosaurs soon gave way to bigger challenges.

At the time Rogers lived on the Isle of Wight. The owner of the island’s Blackgang Chine theme park heard about her toy dinosaur and asked for help with a life-sized robot. The park’s animatronic T-Rex sat on a vibrating platform, driven by computer-controlled loudspeakers. Although “surprisingly effective for a kid’s theme park”, as Rogers says, with the tourist season approaching, T-Rex’s electronics needed attention. Rather than waiting for electronics to arrive from China, the park invited Rogers to apply her Raspberry Pi skills to the robots. This original project has had a continuing impact on the animatronic T-Rex, with Pi computers now monitoring the robot’s motors. If the motor takes too much or too little current, it sends a tweet to alert the maintenance team before the motors seize up and customers start complaining about a defunct dinosaur.

Working with robot dinosaurs sucked Rogers into the wider world of the Pi and a role on television. The Raspberry Pi Foundation told the Pi’s global community about Rogers’s T-Rex and it resulted in a role as a judge on the BBC series Robot Wars. She admits that, as she said in an interview, “I kept thinking, ‘what am I doing here?’ The other two judges were professors, and I was Lucy who had played with robots in a theme park. But, by the third series, I realised that I didn’t need to be a professor – I was an engineer who had made stuff and could actually say what would and wouldn’t work.”

Engineering communication

The television role was part of a move by Rogers to transform the way in which engineers communicate; it also gave her the ‘professor’ title that had intimidated her as a TV judge. In 2019, the Royal Academy of Engineering appointed Rogers as a Visiting Professor of engineering, creativity and communication at Brunel University. She says that it took her years to learn how to communicate engineering knowledge to other people. “I thought that everything you need to know from the piece of work was in the report. You paid me to write the report, that’s job done. Promotion would follow, or at least a pat on the head. I was wrong. People don’t read reports; they want summaries and someone to explain what the summaries mean.”

To remedy her self-diagnosed lack of communications skills, Rogers took comedy, storytelling and writing courses. She worked for four weeks at the Guardian as a media fellow, a scheme that exposes engineers and scientists to life in a busy newsroom. The paper’s science editor, Tim Radford, recognised that, contrary to her own assessment, Rogers could write. He encouraged her to write her first book It’s ONLY Rocket Science, a maths-free account of the engineering of space flight.

In her Brunel professorship, Rogers set out to expose engineering students to her enthusiasm for creativity and communication and to encourage them to cast aside past attempts to suppress their creativity. At school, she complains, “if you were good at exams, you weren’t encouraged to make things or be more creative. I found that I had to give permission back to the engineering students. You are allowed to fail. You’re allowed to try things.

Quick Q&A 

What inspired you to become an engineer? The Great Egg Race TV show and a physics teacher recreating it as a club at school. 

Favourite project you worked on? Current one. Always. Whatever it is. 

Who influenced your engineering career? Heath Robinson, a cartoonist, illustrator and artist, who drew whimsically elaborate machines to achieve simple objectives; Mr Scanlon, my school physics teacher; and my grandad. 

Most admired historical bit of engineering/engineer? My grandad – he made steamboats, rebuilt veteran cars, and was a clock maker who made the first scale model of John Harrison No 1. 

Which engineering achievement couldn’t you do without? My current work relies a lot on the internet. It allows me to collaborate with others around the world. I also like chisels. 

Most impressive bit of engineering to look at? Falkirk Wheel 

Overlooked engineering successes?  Canals 

What do you do in your spare time? Learn new stuff (currently German, juggling, hula hooping); enjoy water (Canadian canoe, kayak, row, paddleboard, swim); make things with my hands; walk Encke the black Labrador; and take close up photos of flowers.

Lucy with Sir Killalot from Robot Wars

 “I define creativity as the ability to imagine new things and act on those thoughts. The difference between creativity and innovation is you can have 1,001 creative ideas, but it’s only really innovative if it is actually usable.”

At Brunel, Rogers also set out to shake up how engineering students learn about communications. Unlike her, their undergraduate training would convince them of the need to be communicators and to develop the appropriate skills.

The Brunel timing fitted well with changes in the curriculum for undergraduate engineers. The Engineering Council’s new guidelines on the Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes now requires engineering courses are to train students to “communicate effectively with technical and non-technical audiences”. As Rogers puts it: “industry says some of what students are learning at university isn’t meeting industry’s requirements.” Companies want to recruit creative engineers who not only know about engineering but who can also communicate that knowledge.

This new approach is happening when education itself is changing, with a move to more remote teaching reinforced by lockdown. Rogers was already working on online courses before COVID-19 prompted lockdowns and restrictions on in-person teaching. She had already started to prepare videos that students could watch before coming together for workshops where they would implement the lessons from the videos. In the event, most teaching moved online.

Rogers’s videos, many of them available on YouTube, started with the basics. They could be as simple as a checklist of things for students to look out for when preparing videos of their own work. The effects were immediate. “I watched the next year’s videos. They were all a grade higher in video and audio quality as well as presentation. It’s probably the same content, but more understandable.”

Rogers is turning her work at Brunel into a series of syndicated online courses. This is partly in recognition that it isn’t easy for engineering departments to teach ‘life skills’ such as communications. “Most universities have a professor of fluid dynamics, but few have an engineering professor with expertise in communication skills.” This is where online courses help.

Rogers has also called on industry experts so that her videos have plenty of engineering. Engineering departments rarely have enough resident working engineers who can pass on frontline experiences. Lecturers can insist on the importance of project management and Gantt charts in engineering, for example, but students don’t always relate that to the real world. Rogers tackled this by recording videos of engineers from industry talking about their work.

It isn’t just the university world that Rogers covers in her communications work. She now chairs the Academy’s Ingenious public engagement awards for projects that engage the public with engineers and engineering. “The ‘E’ in STEM is often silent – and currently many engineering stories from across the UK are not being told,” she says. “Engineering can mean different things to different people. Ingenious projects can broaden perceptions of engineering to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to engage with the profession and access future-shaping careers.”

Also on the public engagement side of things, Rogers is the host of two podcasts: The Engineering Edge, which looks at using every day engineering in extraordinary ways; and DesignSpark, which mixes comedy with STEM.

However, Rogers is wary of trying to do too much herself. Like all women engineers she is often asked to promote the profession to young women. She warns women in engineering against getting the balance wrong between communication and other parts of their work. The last thing we need, she says, is that outreach activity is regarded as “something that women do”. Industry can still regard time spent ‘out of work’ on outreach activities as a sideline that doesn’t count highly in the promotion race. After all, she says, the issue with getting the right gender balance in engineering is also down to the men who make up most of the profession. Rogers’s contribution is to give all engineers, men and women, the communications skills they need to reach out to everyone.


The invention of fun

The Raspberry Pi has enabled many of the inventions from the workshop where Professor Lucy Rogers likes to spend time as an “inventor with a sense of fun”. While at IBM’s Internet of Things headquarters in Switzerland, Rogers wanted to produce a simple version of the ‘smart building’ technology where a “very expensive bespoke piece of kit” with CO2 sensors alerted people when the place was getting stuffy. Rogers created a simplerGold shoes lit up by LEDs around the sole, and cheaper, version that would work in normal buildings. She went online and bought a USB plug-in sensor, attached it to a Pi and programmed the sensor to feed data to IBM’s cloud system. Rogers put an LED in a ping pong ball to read that cloud data and warn people of rising CO2 levels. 

It turned out that the sensor didn’t just monitor CO2, it also detected many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as ethanol, alcohol and benzene. “I discovered, and I am blaming the cat for this, it can also work as a fartometer,” says Rogers. “I think it’s the only time that, the word fart has made it to the IBM home page.” 

Like many, Rogers was intrigued when Banksy decided to shred a valuable artwork as the auctioneers gavel fell. Not convinced by the artist’s own ‘explanations’, she decided to make her own artwork demolition device, adding battery power and a remote control to a commercial shredder. This was one of several fun inventions that Rogers has posted as a part of her collaboration with DesignSpark, the website for engineers, students and hobbyists run by RS Group. 

Another DesignSpark project is Rogers’s crowd-sourced satellite ground station. Turning again to the Raspberry Pi, and putting it in 3D-printed case, Rogers built a £150 ground station. “It was gratifying to see the little orange blob of my station appear on the ground station map.” As she says on the project’s web page “Listening to spacecraft from my back garden … and being able to access other people’s antenna in their back gardens around the world, means we can hear satellites for most of their journey as they circle the globe.” The antenna on the roof that Lucy used as part of her £150 ground station

Other projects have included turning Rogers’s LED boots into an Internet of Things gadget that she could control from anywhere without having to use a mobile phone. “The solution was so cheap (less than £4) that I am now using it to enchant all my ‘things’.”

Career timeline and distinctions

Studied mechanical engineering, Lancaster University, 1995. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award: Gold, 1996. PhD in foam formation in low expansion firefighting equipment, Lancaster University, 2001. Wrote and published It’s ONLY Rocket Science, 2008. Attended Singularity University, 2011. Served as a judge on Robot Wars, 2016–2018. Fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering, 2020. Fellow, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2011. Honorary Fellow, Institution of Engineering Designers, 2022.


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