STEM Matters: Inspiring the next generation of STEM heroes…

04 December 2018

Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor of EPDT

If you’re a regular reader of my #STEMmatters column, you’ll know it often focuses on programmes and initiatives designed to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. Horizon 2020, an EU framework programme funding research, technological development and innovation, has defined a set of seven societal challenges that address major concerns shared by citizens in Europe and elsewhere...

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Such challenges range from health, demographic change and well-being, through climate action, sustainability and clean energy, to smart, integrated transportation, freedom and security. If we are to solve these grand societal challenges that face us all, then we will desperately need the STEM heroes of tomorrow in our corner.

Engineers and scientists will be the ones charged with researching, discovering, innovating, creating, developing, designing and building many of the technologies and solutions to address these challenges – literally improving everyday life and making the world around us a better place. Rewarding work, indeed – why wouldn’t you want to do that? But, despite some encouraging signs, the fact remains that most of the Western world still faces a crisis in STEM recruitment and the skills gap. It falls to all of us in the industry to try and improve this situation.

A key issue remains simply a lack of awareness and understanding of what engineers are – and what they do. The classic image many people think of when asked about engineering is hard hats, spanners and overalls. But while some engineers may fit that image, for some or all of their work, most engineers don’t – and, in fact, the diversity and variety of fields and environments that engineers work in is vast. 

Engineering is in everything that we do and need, everything that we design, make and use – from roads, bridges and buildings, through cars, trains and planes, to computers, phones and the software that drives them. Common threads in modern engineering include ideas, problem solving, design and innovation – maybe the light bulb should be the image that best represents engineering?

So, step one in inspiring that next generation of STEM heroes is helping educate parents, teachers and students on what engineers are and what they do – and a key way to do that is through promoting engineering heroes and the great work they do. Science is ahead of engineering here, but things are certainly improving.

A whole range of programmes and initiatives, including some this #STEMmatters column has recently written about, are focused on doing just the above – including Primary Engineers, Tomorrow’s Engineers and its Big Assembly, and the Year of Engineering, to name just a few. And encouragingly, many of these initiatives are aimed at young children, aiming to spark their natural curiosity and capture their open minds early on.

Recognising that it also has to do a much better job of attracting a more diverse and gender-balanced workforce (#9percentisnotenough), there are also some good programmes specifically addressing girls in STEM. One example is the Talent 2030 National Engineering Competition for Girls (

Designed by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) to help address the UK’s gender imbalance in STEM education and the professional engineering workforce, it aims to encourage more girls to consider careers in engineering, manufacturing and technology. The competition has cash prizes, as well as mentor and sponsorship opportunities, and invites girls to create a project that solves a major challenge of the 21st century, showing how engineering can make a difference to people and the planet.

At the other end of the educational journey, when I attended the Engineering Impact Awards recently, I was inspired – and frankly blown away – by the Student Design Competition finalists, and the awesome work being done by these talented undergraduate engineering students in their final year design projects.

Such projects included simulation-based training technology for cardiovascular surgeons, a driverless vehicle that set new track records for fuel efficiency by travelling a staggering 374 km on a single litre of petrol, and an aquatic ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) that uses cameras to create a 3D model of the underside of icebergs. And I repeat, these projects were developed – in a matter of weeks and on limited budgets – by teams of undergraduate engineers! Let’s hear it for the next generation of STEM heroes!...

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