Category Archives: Project News

Putting the E Word into Engagement

The Royal Academy of Engineering hosted a day on October 25th about Engineering (the E word) Engagement. It was a very interesting day which left me with many challenges and thoughts. Just what you want from a seminar.

The programme for the day consisted of two panel sessions in the morning, followed by an open session. After that we were treated to a series of 5 minutes briefings on past Ingenious projects and Mark Miodownik’s History of Engineering.

I’m going to focus on the first three sessions:

  • Is engineering engagement different from science engagement?
  • Where are all the engineers?
  • Open session: How do we tell what good engagement is?

Is engineering engagement different from science engagement?

There was a lot of crossover between the first two panels. Mostly, I think, because the first panel chose to answer their question by focusing on the second. The panel consisted of  Wendy Sadler, Steve Cross, Jane Magill and Richard Knight.

Key differences were highlighted as:

  • the culture of performance
  • the less leaky career pipeline of engineering
  • schools don’t do engineering, only science
  • whilst engineers had the better products to show they were not as good as scientists when “talking to muggles”
  • engineers were the people sitting at the back of the room with their arms folded muttering “why does no-one know what we do?”

Real engagement was described as what happens minutely on a project by project basis as opposed to the big budget TV shows or media stunts. Steve Cross also summed up the reasons why UCL scientists and engineers do engagement as:

  • they enjoy it
  • they feel morally obliged to do so because they are publicly funded
  • there are strong academic reasons as engagement improves their research
  • there are strong business reasons as engagement can help them get future funding

I was surprised that no-one mentioned that scientists are as likely to talk about the process of science as what they have discovered, whereas engineers are encouraged to speak about the shiny product they have produced.

But the biggest difference among the panel members was about what constitutes engagement and therefore what skills might be needed. Hence Steve’s astute (but not entirely accurate – see below) parting tweet at the top of this post.

There seemed to be some conflict about what people want from the term engineer. Many people thought engineers should have a high status and not be associated with skilled manual work such as car mechanics. However just as many wanted to broaden the scope of who we would call an engineer.

The issue of engineering in schools has been raised many times before and it certainly doesn’t make things easy when trying to reach school students about engineering. But is it really the big problem? I can’t find any evidence that they teach “engineering” as an academic subject in Germany for example.

Finally we were left with the idea that many engineers have “status anxiety”. It’s not something we felt when running I’m an Engineer, Get me out of here and not what corresponds with Steve’s experience at UCL. It was suggested that perhaps it is just that the engineering industry hasn’t spent the millions that science has on created a burgeoning science communication sector.

Where are all the engineers?

I had the pleasure of chairing the next session on “Where are all the engineers?” The four speakers were Prof. Sarah Spurgeon, Jeremy Greaves, Ben Johnson and Dr Helen Featherstone. We heard some more about the problems:

  • women still not being recognised as engineers
  • engineers not willing to take risks which are inevitable with engagement work
  • graduates are not well prepared to do engagement work
  • are we inviting engineers to the right engagement party?
  • need to reclaim “boffin” as a positive term

I was surprised to hear the word boffin used. It’s been a long time since I heard it used to compliment someone, whereas for the last decade Geek has slowly been reclaimed to positively describe someone who is passionate about their subject.

The comment about graduates not being prepared is also worth further examination. Scientists who engage with the public are (or were) often PhD students. In recent years particularly the Doctoral Training Centres have spent considerable resources on providing training for PhD students. Both science and engineering students. But if we’re expecting industry engineers to engage when are they going to get the training opportunities.

You would expect that training to be laid on by their employers. It was suggested that the ‘usual suspects’, a few large engineering firms are getting it right. They are working with a bottom-up approach to encourage engineers to engage. We were still left with the consensus that not enough firms are doing enough.

The session was cut short by a late start and lunch, but I felt we were still some distance from articulating why engineers want to engage with the public. Some of the reasons mentioned were:

  • ‘it’s fun to talk about the toys’ – engineers have pride in their products
  • ‘it’s not enough to be brilliant, you need to help sell the product’
  • speaking to school children can help recruit future engineers

What seemed to be mentioned less was that it is good for the engineers, not just the company they work for:

  • it improves communication and people skills
  • it’s enjoyable
  • it helps you understand what you’re doing

How we can tell if engagement is effective?

The open session allowed us to follow our interests. Kate Bellingham initiated a discussion around how we can tell if engagement is effective. The simple answer is whether you met your objectives or not. But what are our objectives?

My background is in marketing. £billions gets spent on TV advertising every year. Getting your advert noticed is tough. Advertisers spend a lot of effort evaluating their efforts to engage with their markets. One advertising model that I used was based around:

  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Behaviour

Every ad concept was tested to see what awareness it created. Did people notice it? Did they remember it? Could they work out what it was about?

Was it persuasive? Did it tell you much? Did it make you feel positive towards the brand?

Finally we measured how many people would change their behaviour. Would they buy the product?

PR is part of public engagement

Whilst it is clear that we want our engagement to be effective it isn’t as simple as changing behaviour. We do need to create awareness about engineering, and to persuade people of its place in society. PR is part of public engagement. The one-to-many media work of PR has a role to play, as does the many-to-many nature of “real engagement” which is embedded into the process of engineering and science projects. We will be most effective if we use a variety of engagement methods.

Posted on November 2, 2012 modemily in News, Project News | Comments Off on Putting the E Word into Engagement

How do we visualise Engineering?

Gareth Coxon - DesignerHi I’m Gareth. I’ve designed the ‘I’m a Scientist’ and the ‘I’m an Engineer’ (so far) websites. On ‘I’m an Engineer’ we’ve got the basic design and colour ways in place but what we’re missing is the icons and graphics that make the site seem much more relevant to engineering. I’m a designer not an engineer so I’m looking for some suggestions from the engineering community about what things sum up or represent engineering to you.

With I’m a Scientist we choose a conical flask and Van der Graaf generator symbols amongst others. Each zone also has a logo and you can see the most recent ones on the I’m a Scientist home page.

What are the equivalents for engineering? Please don’t send designs I’m just looking to pick your brains and gather your comments on what sums up engineering for you. If you can help please leave a comment below, many thanks in advance!

Posted on November 29, 2011 modemily in News, Project News | Comments Off on How do we visualise Engineering?

I’m an Engineer – The Plan

We can only run these events through co-operation with the Teaching and Engineering communities. That’s why we want to share our plan of action in the run up to the first set of events in March 2012. The plan is not comprehensive so please ask any questions in the comments section and we’ll try to answer them in future news posts.

The action plan breaks down into five main sections: Planning, Recruitment, Event, Evaluation, Sustainability.

Planning – October/November

1. Zone Selection

The first thing we need to do is define the event. We will be running six zones in March. All will be themed. That means the engineers in those zones will need to have some connection to the theme. For example in the Transport Zone we could have engineers building oil pipelines, marine engineers in shipbuilding, or software engineers working on flight systems. It’s fairly general. A nuclear power zone might involve a geotechnical uranium mining engineer, a civil engineer assessing potential sites for nuclear power stations or a ventilation engineer installing systems to keep the control systems cool. Fairly specific. There is more detail on our Zone Selection page.

We need your help in defining the event. What zones and engineers do you think we should have? We’re asking teachers to help us but we also want advice from the engineering sector to help define the event. Please visit the Zone Selection page and leave a comment or email us (

2. Design

We also need to finalise the design for the website and teaching. We have the basic design covered to fit in with our portfolio of events but it is sometimes the small details like the icons for zones and the banner (currently blank) at the top of this page.  How should we visually represent engineering to the 2,000 students who’ll visit the site in March?  Please head over to the Design page to leave us some comments.

3. Partners

We don’t want to do this alone. We can’t. We need to work organisations and institutes who can promote the event to their members, who can advise us on what is working and what is not. Already the Design and Technology Association and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics have agreed to promote the event to their teachers. Bloodhound SSC and the IET have already provided some excellent advice. They all appear on our partners page. Who else do you think we need to get involved? Please email us at if you or your organisation would like to get involved or if you can suggest someone to whom we should be talking.

Recruitment – November/December

1. Teachers

We need up to 100 teachers to take part in March. We would like a third to be D&T teachers, a third Maths and the final third to be science teachers. DATA and NCETM are helping to find D&T and Maths teachers. We’ll promote to our lists of science teachers, but as always we want to also reach out to teachers who’ve not yet discovered the delights of our events. We’re hoping that subject co-ordinators and STEM Contract holders will spread the word in their areas, but if you have suggestions, particularly for reaching D&T and Maths teachers then please let us know in the comments or via email. Teachers can get more information on the Teachers page and register their interest over here.

2. Engineers

We’re in the process of writing to 36 Engineering Institutes and related organisations (you may be reading this because you’ve just received one of our emails). We’re hoping that they’ll promote the event to their members. We’ll also ask the engineers who’ve taken part in the past to pass on information to their colleagues. Personal recommendation is the most effective means of communication. What other routes should we be trying? There is more information for engineers and a page to register their interest in taking part.

Event – March 2012

The event runs from 12th – 23rd March 2012. In January we’ll let teachers know that we’ve got places for them and send them Teacher Packs. Engineers will have to wait until early February. The site will be available for them to write their profiles shortly afterwards. February 27th will see the site live for teachers and students to start reading the profiles and preparing for the main event.

Evaluation – February – April 2012

We are doing formative evaluation throughout the project. This article about the event is part of that process. We want your views and we intend to act upon them. That’s formative evaluation. The more formal type of evaluation, summative, starts in earnest in February. We’ll be asking participants for their views before the events starts, observing the event in action in the classroom and surveying views after the event has finished. One of the benefits of running an online event is that we collect an enormous amount of data about how students and engineers engage with the event. We’ll know how many students asked questions, how many they asked, how much they participated in live chats. We’ll be able to tell the engineers how many students they’ve reached, how many questions they’ve answered and whether they’ve changed the attitudes of those students.

That’s our plan, but what’s the point of evaluation is no-one reads and learns from what you’ve done. We’re genuinely interested in hearing what measures you’d like to see. What is it you want to see in an evaluation? Leave us a comment or email.

Sustainability – 2012

This March is a bit of a pilot. We don’t know for sure if there is an appetite for an engineering equivalent of I’m a Scientist, but the initial signs are good. At the risk of prejudicing the evaluation I think we’ll find in April 2012 that students, teachers and the engineers all got a lot out of taking part. We’ll want the event to continue beyond this first event which The Royal Academy of Engineering are funding through the Ingenious Awards scheme.

We will need to find alternative sources of funding for the project. With I’m a Scientist we’ve got sponsorship from the Institute of Physics, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Nelson Thornes, the educational publisher and the RCUK. We’re also very happy to have the STFC sponsor a zone in I’m an Engineer to highlight some of the work that engineers do to make their facilities work.

We’ll need more sponsors in the future, so please, if you or your organisation are interested in sponsoring a zone please do get in contact.

Posted on October 6, 2011 modemily in News, Project News | Comments Off on I’m an Engineer – The Plan