Shining a spotlight on modern engineering

Jul 7, 2022

By Mike Hardisty, Head of Environmental Sustainability

I watched the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) excellent video ‘Shaping Zero’ recently. It estimates that 70% of global carbon emissions are produced by ‘infrastructure’, for example, the operation of buildings, transport systems, water supplies, and IT networks as well as the materials (cement, steel, aluminium and others) that are used to create them.

In line with COP26’s ambitions, the UK is aiming to half its carbon emissions between 2020 and 2030. In support of this, the ICE says “It’s time to do things differently” and urges its members to “rethink everything we do through a carbon lens”.

Engineering a net zero world

I can think of no other time when such a rapid (10 years) revolution in engineering has been called for, or a more genuinely exciting time to be an engineer. Future engineers will be at the heart of transforming our current, carbon-emitting ways of life (at least in the UK and other “developed” economies) to sustainable ones. From the obvious areas of transportation, power and energy to the, perhaps, less obvious areas of low-carbon steel and cement, carbon capture and storage, buildings retrofit, meat alternatives, using more timber in structures, energy-efficient product design and direct air capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – the opportunities for an interesting and stimulating career are endless.

In addition to climate change mitigation (decarbonisation), engineers will also be central to climate change adaptation which will involve providing more robust sea and river defences as well as adapting infrastructure in order to withstand extreme weather events.

At the same time, there is a problem of “eco-anxiety” which is afflicting many young people, and with good reason given the climate change forecasts that the scientific community is currently making – with climate change “tipping points” just around the corner.

Climate change mitigation = engineering & technology

Meanwhile, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) recently estimated “…a shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the STEM sector”. So, could providers of STEM experiences and careers advice help address all these issues by pointing out the opportunities to help decarbonise and protect the UK through a career in engineering?  Informal feedback from EngineeringUK’s teacher network suggests that the connection between climate change and engineering is far from clear to most young people. As does a recent survey which found that while 55% of young people (16-24 years) “felt inspired to pursue a green career”, 44% didn’t “understand what ‘green jobs’ were available”.

So, let’s make this link very clear to young people – and quickly.

Providers of STEM experiences and careers advice must let young people know that ‘modern engineering’ is about designing a sustainable way of life. Many of the solutions, such as wind farms and EVs, are out there already but may need refinement and greater levels of adoption, whilst other solutions, like sustainable aviation fuel and direct air capture of carbon dioxide, still need to be taken from R&D into mass production. The ‘circular economy’ concept will also appeal to young people who are interested in materials, recycling and reducing waste.

Neon, a platform launched by EngineeringUK to bring into one place the UK’s quality engineering outreach opportunities (‘experiences’) and inspiring careers resources, has recently launched a set of 4 green engineering careers posters for use in schools.  These aim to stimulate debate about the future of travel, materials, fossil fuels and food, and we intend to add to them with other subject areas. Neon also offers dozens of ‘case studies’, which are interviews with young engineers, and 24 of these are connected with the environment. Let’s hope that they start to join the dots for young people.

Inspiring young people through engineering outreach

The more that STEM experiences can make the case that modern engineering is about designing new ways for living sustainably, the more a career in engineering will appeal to a wider range of young people.

The Tomorrow’s Engineers Code asks its signatories (over 200 to date) to commit to ‘engage young people with modern engineering’ through ‘engineering-inspiration activities’.  Signing up to The Code is a perfect way to gain insight into how you can improve your engineering outreach and inspire more young people into the field, and events like Tomorrow’s Engineers Live are excellent opportunities for the community to come together and find new ways to spotlight engineering. Please consider signing up.

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