Engineering education

1 December 2002

Dr Wendy Daniell explains why it is important for engineering practitioners and researchers to promote their profession to young people

INTERNATIONALLY, the promotion of public awareness of science and engineering is now being seen as an important activity. Governments and industry are supporting activities in this area to counter the following problems:

• The numbers of students pursuing higher education courses in the physical sciences and engineering are falling.

• The public is increasingly demonstrating negative attitudes towards scientific issues and engineering projects.

Between 1995 and 2000, the number of students in the UK studying engineering and technology at higher education level fell by 7%1. There is concern that, without intervention, this trend could result in a serious shortage of engineers, which could contribute to a decline in the economic wealth of the nation. The steadily weakening demand for engineering courses follows on from significant falls in the numbers of school pupils choosing to study mathematics and physics. It is believed that students lose interest at school level2 because they are not enthused by the teaching methods and content of the science and mathematics courses. Furthermore, they cannot see the relevance of the issues they study to the world around them and future careers. It is recognised that pupils' enthusiasm for these subjects can be improved through extra curricula activities that demonstrate the challenge and excitement of science and engineering projects and careers.

In the UK, 'public awareness' funding is available through various bodies for the development of such activities. For example, the UK Government's funding agency for research in engineering and the physical sciences (EPSRC) offers awards, up to £40,000 (US$62,415) to encourage researchers to develop schemes to communicate the role and benefits of their work to the wider public. Schemes can be targeted at school children or adults.

Public awareness projects informing adults can be beneficial in offsetting negative attitudes towards science and engineering. It is now generally accepted that scientists and engineers are far more likely to command public support if they declare the values that underpin their work and the reasons for it. Poor public opinion can be attributed to a lack of trust in government and industry and the handling of issues by the popular media3. As people have become better educated and more informed, they now tend to question authority and are suspicious of secrecy within governments and organisations. They can be hostile towards decision-makers, believing that they consider mainly scientific and engineering factors, while underrating social and moral concerns. Such feelings are often encountered over imposing civil engineering projects, such as large dams, which are viewed as being detrimental to local populations and the environment.

Attitudes to dams

The international-commission-on-large-dams (ICOLD) has recently formed a Committee on Public Awareness and Education, which aims to redress the balance of information on dams that the general public receives through their schooling and the media. In particular, they want to promote awareness of the beneficial role of dams in the sustainable development and management of water resources, by encouraging their national committees to develop and implement educational projects.

As an example, the British Dam Society (BDS) is already actively committed to public awareness. Its new strategy aims to widen membership to professionals other than engineers, such as sociologists and environmentalists, to encourage debate and understanding on issues of conflicting interest. In addition, it has elected a champion for schools work to investigate and implement schemes that can be embraced by teachers to enhance the material requirements of the National Schools' Curriculum.

ICOLD also highlights the importance of exposing children to accurate and reliable information on water resource developments, to enable them to form considered views on the subject. Increasingly, school children are being taught the values of the environment, which is essential knowledge for future sustainable development. Unfortunately, dams are often used as examples of detrimental developments.

This negative aspect of dams was reinforced recently in the October 2002 Issue of insite, a New Civil Engineer publication aimed at 14 to 18 year olds. In an article on the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in September 2002, a photograph of an impressive concrete dam appears with the caption 'Dams do little for sustainable development'. the-british-dam-society (BDS) responded to the article by challenging student readers to question that statement. In the next issue of insite, BDS is sponsoring an essay competition in which entrants must discuss the advantages and disadvantages of dams, how they can be managed with minimal detriment to people and the environment, and when is it better to consider other alternatives for water resources.

This is just one of a number of BDS initiatives for schools. As part of its website (, it has produced About Dams, an educational resource for school students to reference for their projects. Providing a comprehensive introduction to dams, it includes information on types of dams and their ancillary works and how they are designed, built and operated safely. In addition, it covers the benefits of reservoirs and dams as a resource, and how their effects on people and the environment can be managed. The web pages are extensively illustrated with photographs, and supported by an informative glossary of terms. The purpose of this website was to provide accurate, informative and balanced information on dams. It is hoped that its presence will go some way to compensating for the abundance of adverse material on dams that can be found over the internet.

The website and the essay competition deal mainly with the problem of negative attitudes to dams. Association with these projects may inspire young people to investigate engineering as a future career. It may also encourage their participation in exciting and interesting engineering challenges that should involve hands-on experimentation or design and are intellectually stimulating.

The Institution of Civil Engineers advances the development of such projects through its Henry Palmer Award, which is a competition for graduate and undergraduate engineers to devise schemes to promote the civil engineering profession to young people. To further its own aims, the BDS has linked into this existing scheme by sponsoring a prize for the best project on dams that either demonstrates how their benefits can be balanced with regard to safety and the environment, or excites children over the engineering issues. Through this involvement, the BDS expects that a number of schools' projects on dams will be produced, which can made available as an educational resource through their website.

Most of the Henry Palmer projects are designed to be run over a short time period, usually a day or half-day, as a requirement of the award scheme is that projects are easily replicable. This means they have to be limited in their scope, but they can still be very effective. Larger projects that can be run over an extended period are encouraged through funding from the EPSRC Partnerships for Public Awareness Awards. With a UK£30,000 (US$46,811) EPSRC award, the author and her colleague, Dr Adam Crewe, have developed IDEERS3, an earthquake engineering challenge that has been successful in inspiring teachers, across a range of curriculum subjects, and their pupils.

IDEERS challenge

Developed by the University of Bristol's Earthquake Engineering Research Centre (EERC), IDEERS is an acronym that stands for 'Introducing and Demonstrating Earthquake Engineering Research in Schools'. The primary objective of the project was to encourage 11 to 16 year-olds to understand the process of earthquake engineering research and its benefits in meeting society's requirement for well-engineered earthquake resistant structures. This was achieved through a national competition for students to design and build models of earthquake resistant buildings that can resist artificial earthquakes on the EERC shaking-table (an earthquake simulator). Except for the final tests, the competition was web-based with all its details on the IDEERS website ( The website also provides a supporting educational resource in four sections:

• 'Earthquakes' explains the physical processes that cause earthquakes, their frequency and where they happen, all providing a background to the nature of seismic forces. (Reservoir induced seismicity is included.)

• 'Shaken Societies' uses photographs of real earthquake damage to structures from around the world with simple explanations of why the failures occurred. (Details are given of damage to the Shih-Kang dam, from the 1999 Taiwan Chi-Chi earthquake, and to the Los Angeles reservoir tower from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.)

• 'Resistant Buildings' explains how buildings respond dynamically to earthquakes and how engineers design buildings to be seismically resistant.

• 'Research@Bristol' uses examples of EERC research to show how understanding of the seismic behaviour of structures can be improved, and how new techniques for the analysis and design of earthquake resistant buildings are developed.

Throughout the website, a glossary, animation, photographs, video and simple experiments are used extensively to illustrate the written material.

By using the website as a resource, students can appreciate how earthquake engineering research benefits society by developing methods that engineers use to improve the seismic performance of structures. They can see how structural damage from large earthquakes and the accompanying risk of injury and death can be minimised.

The competition gives children the opportunity to simulate the challenges that engineers and researchers face. In designing their model buildings, they can devise novel approaches to make them earthquake resistant and then test their ideas using simple push-over tests to simulate seismic loading. Various tests are explained in the 'Competition' section of the website. Students also use skills learnt in Design and Technology, Mathematics and Science, creating links to real life problems and possible careers.

The website was developed in partnership with Professor Rosamund Sutherland in the University's Graduate School of Education, who advised on educational aspects and young peoples' interaction with computer technology. The British Geological Survey also contributed to the Earthquakes section by providing graphic material and by reviewing the completed web pages.

IDEERS has been embraced by schools which have relatively easy access to the university, and a number of teachers are now using the project as the basis of their teaching of structures in Design and Technology. Geography and Science teachers have also accessed the project. In response to teachers' requests, IDEERS is now open to 17 and 18 years olds. E-mail correspondence indicates that some teachers have been using the project in the US for Science teaching.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the success of IDEERS. Most importantly, it is an educationally sound resource, which is attractive to teachers, and which can be used to support their curriculum teaching in the 11 to 18 year old range. IDEERS contains the essential ingredients of providing the students with a problem to solve, using intellectual and hands-on activity, and a final competition where their models are tested against those of their competitors, both dynamically and to destruction. It is a good example of how to stimulate interest in engineering among young people.

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