The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{September 5, 2011}   Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

I spent most of the bank holiday weekend dressed up as a wolf. And I was working. For WSP CEL. This, I assure you, is not my usual work wear. However, I was still engineering. No really, I was!

You see over the bank holiday weekend Coventry Airbase hosted the 2011 Imagineering Fair. I love the Imagineering Fair, it’s all about getting kids excited about engineering. All sorts of different companies turn up, so as a professional engineer you get to meet a whole load of engineers that you would otherwise never see. The companies then put on activities for the kids to get hands on with engineering problems. I love that part for two different reasons

– one, because seeing the kids’ faces when they build something successful is massively rewarding and is definitely worth working through the weekend for
– and two, because kids are so much more imaginative than we adults are. All our training, all that education we have – it’s brilliant because it teaches you efficient solutions to standard problems and it teaches you the maths & theory & material properties you need to know to be able to calculate whether your answer will work. But, the other thing it does is make you forget to imagine, forget that trial & error is ok, forget that weird & wonderful untried solutions can sometimes be even better than answers that have been developed & refined over decades. I think that’s very worth being reminded of on a regular basis. Perhaps we should get kids into the office sometimes.

But that’s an aside. Why was I dressed as a wolf? I was in fact the big bad wolf. The WSP activity was constructing paper towers to keep the 3 little pigs out of the wolf’s reach. Of course the paper towers then also had to resist the wolf’s huff & puff…otherwise known as a desk fan.

The pigs had lots of adventures, and a fair few tumbles, but on the whole there were a lot of amazing solutions to the task. Over the weekend a large pig city rapidly built up around our stand. It really was something to behold – the sheer variety of different approaches. I certainly found it very inspiring, seeing all that imagination. One thing it’s reminded me of, and a learning I will take back to the office, is that there is never just one right answer.

Since getting chartered I’ve decided to play a more active role in my professional institute, CIBSE. After e-mailing the chairman of the local committee, and attending my first meeting, I’ve now been appointed the role of ‘Education Liaison Officer’ (or ELO) for CIBSE in the West Midlands. I’ve also got a seat on the committee itself.

I was only elected to the role a week ago, but since then I’ve endeavoured to get in touch with as many of the other engineering institute’s local committees as possible. Where they have one I’ve been getting in touch with other Education/School Liaison Officers, and where they don’t I’m getting in touch with the chairmen or secretaries. In less than a week I’ve already received an overwhelmingly positive response.

Every person I’ve spoken to is really enthusiastic either about sharing the knowledge and experience they already have regarding school events & engagement, or about getting involved with joint events with CIBSE. It’s so inspiring to be speaking to such passionate, interested and motivated individuals. It really makes me excited about what it may be possible to achieve together.

In my experience school pupils don’t have enough opportunities to see and hear about what engineering is, and what exciting engineering is taking place around them. Then we (that’s both ‘we’ the engineering industry, and ‘we’ British society) are surprised when not enough young people choose to pursue careers in engineering. The engineering population is aging, and unless more graduates and apprentices enter the industry we will be left with a serious lack of staff and knowledge in 10-15 years time. That’s not just my opinion, but something that companies such as Centrica are sufficiently concerned about to have commissioned surveys around the topic.

One of the ways to change things for the better is simply for engineers and engineering companies to go into schools and explain what they do, why it’s important and what is exciting about it. Hopefully in my new voluntary role as ELO (Education Liaison Officer, not Electric Light Orchestra) I’ll be able to take part in, and facilitate, lots of opportunities for students to meet engineers. Who knows, perhaps this is the start of a West Midlands movement to re-engage with schools and students and inspire a new generation of engineers…

I was asked recently, as part of the Ingenious Women project & being a STEM Ambassador, to give a talk to FE lecturers so that they can engage & motivate their own students studying STEM subjects and encourage them to consider STEM careers.

My briefing was: “You will have 15-20 minutes to talk about your own career and the barriers you had to overcome. What were/are the good things you have experienced and what inspired you to become a scientist/engineer?

I really want to do a good job with this seminar as it will enable others to inspire far more pupils than I can reach alone, so I’ve been putting a lot of thought into it. I’m sharing my answers here as they might be of interest to more folk than just the Birmingham FE lecturers. Though if if you’re from Matthew Boulton College you might want to stop here or you’ll be reading spoilers!

So what barriers have I had to overcome?
– Technical understanding: I found Further Maths very challenging at A-Level, but I’m so glad I took it because when I got to university and found I was studying the same things in the ‘Advanced Engineering Mathematics’ module it all just clicked into place in my head & suddenly it was (comparatively) easy…everyone else around me was really struggling though, so I was glad to be able to help! Engineering isn’t easy, but once the difficult bits start clicking into place it’s very interesting and personally I found the technical challenges very enjoyable.

– Sexism: Even in this day and age there is still something of an obstacle to women progressing in engineering, and as such we’re few & far between. On the whole I find it doesn’t matter to most people what my gender is, but occasionally I come across real corkers. I think my most painful memory along those lines occurred at my Grandfather’s funeral. I was in my early twenties, studying engineering at university. I was stood next to my Mother when one of my Grandfather’s old gentleman acquaintances said to her “I don’t know why you’re letting her study engineering, she’ll never get anywhere with it, she’s a girl”. To be honest though, comments like that tend to spur me on to prove them wrong rather than being a true barrier…though pay disparity can still be an issue.
– Work load: Engineering degrees, and engineering jobs, are not an easy ride, there’s a lot of work to be done. Sometimes that can be very tough, for example; when all of your friends at Uni are going out & having fun or spending time relaxing whilst you’re working away in the labs or in lectures. Even sometimes just getting up in the morning for lectures while everyone else is having a lie-in seems very unfair, but I do love the level of knowledge and respect that the hard graft has bestowed upon me.

image credit: LorenGul on IgoUgo

What are the good things I’ve experienced?
– Having a positive impact: I love opening the bathroom cabinet to get out a medicine & being able to say “I made the factory that made this” – it’s very rewarding
– Problem solving: There’s something deeply satisfying about coming up against a technical challenge & finding a good solution that everyone (from clients to construction workers) is happy with. Or spending weeks tweaking a building & all its services so it passes validation just in time for an audit! Phew – what a relief!
– Seeing interesting places & finding out how things are made: For example I really enjoyed spending time in Cadbury’s research & development labs/kitchens in Bourneville – mmm chocolatey! I’ve also had the pleasure of travelling to Paris for meetings, and heading back to the airport from a Swiss meeting via a boat trip on Lake Geneva – I do love a bit of travel, I love coming home again too, but you can’t beat an all expenses paid trip to Paris!

image credit: racecar engineering

And what on earth inspired me to become an engineer in the first place?
– My Grandfather (he wanted to be an engineer, and had a fantastic workshop in his back garden where he made the most incredible working scale models of trains, boats and traction engines, he also volunteered on the Welshpool & Llanfair light railway)
– Exciting engineering projects like Formula One, I used to watch races with my parents as a kid & I so wanted to know how it all worked
– I’ve always loved solving problems and getting my head round how things work…if I get to be creative & use some maths & physics on route then so much the better!

A few more things also confirmed to me that engineering was what I wanted to do:
– Going on a Headstart course (a week in a university engineering department)
– Older friends who were studying engineering or working as engineers (you may not like to admit it Mr. Farmer & Mr. Prestwich, for reasons of age or ego, but it’s true)
– A couple of my teachers who spoke to me about my aptitude in their subjects (maths and design technology) and encouraged me down the engineering path (thank-you Ms. Maginnis & Mr. Harrison)
– The respect that people I knew had for engineers

So that’s why I’m an engineer…what influenced your career choice(s)?

et cetera
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