Engineers Week: Why everyone should want to be an engineer

29 Feb 2016

Engineering is in everything we do, so why isn't it being taught as a virtue or quality in our schools?

It is Engineers Week and now more than ever we need to impress on kids, teachers and parents that being an engineer isn’t just an occupation, it is a quality and a way of thinking that holds the key to everyone’s future, writes John Kennedy.

I have a niece we sometimes nickname Bob the Breaker because she has an inquiring mind and always wants to know how things work. Whatever her life path has in store for her, I hope she considers engineering.

Engineers are the magicians of our age, only a more logical and humble sort who engineer the fabric of our existence.

The term “engineering” is actually derived from the Latin ingenium, which means “cleverness” and ingeniare, which means “to contrive” and “to devise.”

There are all kinds of engineers who make all kinds of things possible, including the bridges and roads we drive across, the drugs that save lives, the video games we while away our time on, the smartphones in our pockets, the heating systems in our homes and the jets that crisscross our skies.

Engineering is life

I always had a curiosity about engineers and, because it is 2016, the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it has a poignant meaning for me. In 1916, my grandfather was a Royal Engineer on the Somme battlefield mere months after the Rising and I always wondered about the torn feelings of those young Irishmen on distant battlefields far away from the tumultuous events at home. His older brother, also an engineer, had died in Gallipoli a year earlier.

On his return from the war, my grandfather was embroiled in the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War and I always thought there was an interesting juxtaposition between his exposure to years of violence to finally settling down to a quiet life where he brought up a large brood of children and put his engineering skills to good use in a way that fostered life in 20th century Ireland. As well as running a farm he had a kind of civil engineering business that involved using his talent for dousing – the art of finding water using a metal rod – and sinking parish pumps up and down the midlands of Ireland. His business required skills from sinking wells to welding and carpentry and even a knowledge of explosives. His trademark would be a parish pump that would be housed in a blue wooden frame emblazoned with a capital K. He used to run ads in local newspapers like The Tipperary Star with the slogan “Guinness is good for you but water is better”.

And that’s just it – engineering is life.

But I will never understand why out of the four STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – that engineering and technology aren’t formal subjects in the school curriculum.

‘People understand what a bank is but do they understand what a scientist or engineer does?’

Engineering is a vast subject area underpinned by maths and science but which covers a swathe of disciplines and career types from biomolecular engineering and materials engineering to process engineering, environmental engineering, electrical engineering, structural engineering, civil engineering, software engineering, sound engineering, sports engineering and aerospace engineering, to name but a few.

But, in school, I never remember it being discussed as a career direction – banking, accountancy, law for sure – but never engineering.

This is surprising because the highest paid jobs in the world today – certainly in Silicon Valley – are for software engineers who have become as rare as hens’ teeth.

Engineering should not only be considered as a subject on the school curriculum, it should be considered a virtue, a quality and a way of thinking. Not everyone will be an engineer, but they should want to be.

Let’s engineer our future

Engineering is in Ireland’s DNA – from Newgrange, which predates Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, to the skyscrapers that tower over American cities to the very Higgins boats that were used to liberate Europe on D-Day 1944 – the Irish have a knack for it.

As I was writing this column in my mind, conversations with various engineers in recent weeks made me realise that, if we fail to embrace engineering as a quality, then we are failing to teach our young the purpose of studying maths and science in the first place.

Students who struggle with maths don’t just struggle with the logic of it, they struggle with the why. Why study algebra for example? Well, you can’t build a bridge without using it to calculate the physics required to stop it tumbling into a river.

In recent weeks, an Irish technology company called Movidius scooped a major multi-million dollar deal with Google to provide chips for future generations of products from smartphones to VR headsets. Google is currently working on a next-generation VR headset that will feature the Irish chip. When I spoke to one of Movidius’ co-founders, David Maloney, he reminded me that it’s all about the maths, linear algebra in particular, which will drive a whole new generation of hardware and apps.

Indeed, the very heart of video game technology is driven by maths. The graphics and 3D physics of video games and movie special effects owe their existence to quaternions. In 1843, Sir William Rowan Hamilton committed an early act of vandalism by cutting the first fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication i² = j² = k² = ijk = −1 onto Broom Bridge in Dublin.

Like I said, engineering is in our DNA.

In recent weeks, I spoke to Mark Barrett, co-founder of a company called APC, which is creating 100 new jobs in Dublin and which has put Ireland on the map for product strategy in the global pharma business by figuring out how pharma giants can turn a molecule into a life-saving drug, for example.

All three brothers in the Barrett household are engineers – two are chemical, one is civil – and 80pc of the staff at APC are holders of PhDs.

He explained his belief as to why schools in particular need to build a bridge between maths, science and our very existence: “When I went into chemical engineering and understood that it could make people’s lives better, that had me hooked. STEM, particularly engineering and maths, needs to be better marketed and canvassed in schools.

“People understand what a bank is but do they understand what a scientist or engineer does? We aren’t encouraging young people to make that connection intuitively and, as a result, they don’t understand how to make a career out of it.”

But some are making that intuitive connection. This week, our Start-up of the Week was a young Galway-based company called ExerWise, which has created a wearable activity tracker to encourage kids to be active and take more exercise. Founded by Nicola O’Sullivan, Laura Hanlon and Ciarán Walsh, all three are recent graduates from NUI Galway where they studied sports and exercise engineering.

“Our degree was a combination of electronic engineering with health sciences and mechanical engineering. The three of us worked together on a project in college and this was the catalyst to our friendship and our company.”

So engineering is also the catalyst for entrepreneurship.

At a time when ICT accounts for around €50bn of Ireland’s exports each year and more than 50pc of the world’s active pharma ingredients come from these shores from an industry that is worth €40bn in exports every year, we need to get our heads clear on the engineering opportunity.

If engineering can spark imaginations then joining the dots between subjects like maths and science and exciting careers that could change the world is crucial. Parents and teachers have a critical role in demonstrating to kids the “why” of difficult subjects like maths and why it matters to life overall and their lives in particular.

Recent figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) show high third-level dropout rates in maths-related courses like engineering (excluding civil) and computer science of 23pc and 25pc respectively – above the national average of 16pc.

There is a disconnect. But this can be fixed. Let’s start by imagining how we can all build a bridge.

Engineering image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years