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Dr Will Whittow WHY ENGINEERING

Dr. William Whittow BSc, PhD, F HEA, SMIEEE

Dr. William Whittow
BSc, PhD, F HEA, SMIEEE


ENGINEERING, IT'S LIKE MATH(S) BUT LOUDER


Paul Cody asked Dr. William Whittow, Senior Lecturer in Antennas & Electronic Materials at Loughborough University if he would do an Interview to Inspire Kids & Students who dream of designing and building their world to choose a Career in Engineering.

Dr. Will Whittow is  the Admissions Tutor for Electrical Engineering in the Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering. These views are his own.  @willwhittow

1) How did you get into Engineering?

I got into Engineering by mistake! When I was 17-18 I thought Engineering was mostly fixing engines. I naively thought that I was too academic and too mathematical to consider Engineering – now I realise I’m not nearly Mathematical enough. I studied Physics at University but didn’t really know where the jobs were and decided to do a PhD. I didn't really like the Physics professors who had PhD positions available.Then I tried to do one with Prof. Noel Sharkey (of Robot Wars fame) and he replied with “why should we take you?” and I didn't have the confidence to fight my case. I then tried to do a PhD in Psychology but got confused by the website.

Then I had an interview to do a PhD I Computer Science. I knocked on the door – there was no answer. The academic in the next office happened to have his door open and said “He’s gone on holiday.” “He can’t have gone on holiday I have an interview about doing a PhD.” “I’ve got a PhD post you may be interested in.” I thought I may as well listen to him as I was there. That’s how I got into Engineering. Ironically my Supervisor was only in that office in the Computer Science building, as they were repainting his office in the Electrical Engineering building. My PhD concerned the energy absorbed in the head from mobile phones.


2) What is your research about?
My research relates to electromagnetics or anything where wireless communication is required. I work on various projects that include: i) Monitoring healing of broken bones; ii) Implementation of RFID tags into factory environments; iii) Energy harvesting; iv) Wearable and embroidered antennas; v) Smart glasses; vi) Wireless sensors; vii) Inkjet printed antennas or EMC shielding; viii) Metamaterials and metasurfaces; ix) Techniques to measure dielectric material properties; x) RF energy absorbed in the body from mobile phones; and xi) 3D-Printing: our Group is leading a £5M EPSRC Grand Challenge project called SYMETA (http://www.symeta.co.uk/). In this work, we are trying to develop the next generation of electronics by 3D-Printing complex geometries of metals and dielectrics. My research is just a small part of Electrical Engineering which is an incredibly diverse subject.

3) What is a typical day like for you or your students?

Every day is different. There is a mixture of teaching; preparing for teaching; tutorials; processing #ucas applications; promoting Electrical Engineering at Lboro; reading the latest academic papers; supervising PhD and UG final year project students; visiting industry; technical meetings; and writing research proposals. I rarely get the chance to do hands-on work in the lab these days.

My PhD students are solely focused on their project. Therefore, they read academic papers; do calculations; run simulations; build experiments and do measurements. Final Year project students have a similar itinerary but typically at a lower academic level as they don’t yet have the experience.

UG students may have ~25 hours of contact time in their first year. This number decreases slightly in later years as the project work increases. Their time will be spend in lectures; tutorials; in labs; doing group projects and then doing maths-related questions after class. If you’re going to be paying £9k in fees, you want to learn as much as you can have the opportunity to use expensive equipment. Therefore, Engineering is excellent value for money compared to English, History or Philosophy etcwhich may only have ~4 hours contact time per week.

4) What advice would you give kids thinking about doing Engineering?

Even thinking about Engineering is a fantastic first step. This means you have more awareness than most people and certainly more than I had. There are so many incredible events where you can do hands-on activities: Big Bang Fair; Engineering Experience; First Lego League etc. You can also play with Raspberry Pi or BBC Microbit controllers. These will all give you a taste of Engineering and will look fantastic on your #UCAS applications.

Maths is key to study Engineering at University. Therefore choosing Maths A-Level is essential. Physics is generally essential too. If you don’t have A-Level Maths, then the Foundation Year route is an excellent option. This allows you to cover the Maths A-Level syllabus and some science in an additional year at university before you start the course.

Approximately 35% of graduates end up working in non-graduate jobs. This means will have potentially get themselves into debt and not advanced their careers. This is a potential risk for all non-vocational courses. Engineering leads directly to millions of jobs and the transferable skills learnt mean you will always have career options,

The IET’s Engineer a Better World is a must read for all kids, parents and teachers. The summary report is very readable with clear illuminating images to highlight perceptions:

5) What are Engineering myths?

In European languages, Engineer is derived from inspiring words such ingenuity. In English, we are effectively hamstrung by subconsciously associating Engineering with engines. When I was 17, the first thought that came to my mind about Engineering was someone working on dirty train engines.

The broadness of the word “Engineer” means it applies to a very wide range of skills from phsically repairing items to incredibly complex mathematics and everything in-between. The majority of Engineers we meet are typically people with practical skills and intuition but may not have degrees. If something is broken, the response is we’ll send round an Engineer.People with Engineeringdegrees rarely introduce themselves as Engineers but say they work for XXX company or describe what they work on. Therefore, it is challenging to inspire young people to consider studying Engineering at University.

Try Googling images for “Engineer” – the first three pages are almost exclusively white men in yellow hard hats. The yellow hard hat has become a lazy journalistic way to show someone is an Engineer. This further perpetuates the myth that Engineering is physical, not intellectual, dangerous and predominantly for men. All these ideas are out of date but it is very hard to change the views of society.

6) Is Engineering for Women?

Absolutely yes! The only time I’ve worn a hard hat in the last decade was when I went abseiling. Engineering is not about physical strength. It is about using your brain, creativity and problem solving skills to make the world a better place. There remains a misconception that Maths and Engineering are for boys. This is rubbish. However, this subconscious bias can manifest itself in girls getting lower marks when their name is on the paper. As the brilliant Blue-Eyes Brown-Eyes  Jane Elliot experiment showed, kids are naturally suggestable. These small influences can put girls off Engineering at an early age. I have given many talks about women in Engineering and the anecdotal evidence is that the career advice was pretty weak and sometimes girls were actively put off Engineering. Girls need to be inspired at an early age, perhaps 12, otherwise it’s too late.

Girls outperform boys at Maths and Physics GCSE. However, only 20% of Physics A-Level students are female. This rules many girls out of Engineering degrees and hence future careers. Note, you can study Electrical Engineering at Lboro with Maths & any science. We made this change as we didn’t want to restrict career options for choices people made at 15.

Girls still have to overcome subconscious bias and societal perceptions. We all need to do more to make sure we inspire Everybody into Engineering. However, there have been many studies that show that a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints is beneficial to business; therefore there has never been a better time for women to get into Engineering as they are in high demand. Just be yourself and be confident, especially at interviews. Many companies are actively recruiting women and actively changing the culture to make the profession more flexible for people with families.

7) Is Engineering a good career choice?

• Engineering is everything we use and do.
• There are > 5.5 Million Engineers in the UK.
• Engineering is 27% of GDP (£455Billion).
• Yet few 16 year olds know what it is and hence Demand >> Supply.
• Average graduate starting salary is £27k.
• UK needs to DOUBLE the number of technicians, apprentices and Engineering graduates.
• 53% of companies said it was hard to find skilled Engineering graduates.
• Therefore, you are entering a sector where Demand >> Supply and companies are fighting for good students.
• The average Chartered Engineer earns £68.5k.

The above data is taken from the 2016 EngineeringUK report.
http://www.engineeringuk.com/Research/At-a-glance-2016/


8) What are the most exciting topics in Engineering?

Engineers will solve the big societal challenges: i) Energy vs climate change; ii) Transport; iii) Communication; andiv)Healthcare for our ageing population. The question is can we do this fast enough?

My Electrical Engineering colleagues at Lboro are working on topics such as developing new solar cells; optimising wind turbines; developing hardware, software and signal processing for 5G communications; and safer and more efficient switching of train track points.

If you speak to any 16-18 year old, high on their list of priorities will be learning to drive. I believe that many kids born in 2016 will never learn to drive as we will all be using driverless cars. The thousands of calculations that our brains are constantly doing when we drive will be replaced by electronic systems.It’s incredible how our world will change within one generation!

By 2045, it is estimated there will be approaching 100 Trillion sensors on the planet. This is a big number. In fact it works out to be ~ 10,000 sensors for every human being on the planet.

Our lives will see incredible change in the next 25 years due to electronics systems. The next generation of Engineers will be at the forefront of driving this change. This is an exciting opportunity for anyone beginning their career.

 

QUESTIONS FROM  Retired Naval, Submarine Commander The Captain

1. What advice would you give to someone who studied engineering (any field), but after graduating determined they didn't actually want to be an engineer for the rest of their working life?

Ideally they would stay in Engineering. We need as many Engineers as we can get. Perhaps try another sector. Some Engineers go into technical sales as this allows them to use their technical background but their day to day job is not pure engineering.

Engineering teaches people a very wide range of skills including: numerical analysis; building and testing of hypothesis; coding; risk management and planning; and team work. Therefore, Engineers will always be highly sought after in all sectors or management roles. Some of our students use their numerical and computing skills to go into the financial sector.


2. Why do you believe engineers could be great managers or corporate leaders?

As mentioned above Engineers develop a wide range of skills. Engineering is effectively observing the universe; imagining alternatives; assessing options; and then implementing the optimal solution. Many of these skills are parallel to the skills required by managers. If they are working in a technical area, it is very useful for managers who have aEngineering background.

3. Of the skills you list on your FAQ's sheet, which one is most important to you for (1) success in the program and (2) success as a practicing professional engineer?

(1) To study Engineering at University, then Maths & numeracy is probably the most essential skill. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you can work harder to cover up your weaknesses. However, that is less easy with Maths.

(2) The best skills in industry very much depend on your role and the sector you work in. Probably problem solving is a key skill. However, organisation and communication skills are also essential.

4. How important is "character" and/or "integrity" to being a great engineer?

In Engineering, you are often trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. This can be challenging. Someone once told me that to be a great Engineer, you have to believe on your 100th attempt that you have discovered the solution that didn’t work on the first 99 attempts. Failing is part of learning. To learn, you need to keep observing, analysing, hypothesizing and thinking of new strategies. It is incredibly rewarding when it works.

QUESTION FROM  ENGINEERING COMMUNITY

1. Dr.Whittow we've had #ILookLikeAnEngineer and #9percentisnotenough, do you think we need a similar campaign to get more kids into STEM?"

Those two campaigns were brilliant. We need to keep coming up with campaigns. My personal favourites at the moment include #UKNeeds2xAsManyEngineers and #NotJustForKids. The latter is based on the fact that all kids are curious, creative, problem solving Engineers. However, it takes big organisations like The IET to allow these campaigns gain momentum.

Another slight problem of social media is that we like or follow the things we are interested in. Therefore, we naturally bias our sensory input to things we already know about. The real challenge is inspiring the kids, teachers and parents who have never thought about STEM or Engineering.

 


QUESTION FROM SMALLPIECE TRUST

1. Dr. Whittow, what do you think schools should be doing to encourage more young people into the STEM subjects?

I think everyone needs to take responsibility, including the government, industry, media and schools. The problem is that everyone is busy. Teachers are already operating at breaking point. Many teachers are super-human and give up their own time to give their pupils extra STEM opportunities. Naturally, certain schools and certain kids will have opportunities that others don’t. Many people suggest that we need to send Engineers into schools but this is not straight forward. I try to go into schools as often as I can and am returning to my old school later this month. I have spent ~ 100 literally hundreds ofhours trying to prepare interesting material. To arrange a single visit probably requires ~ 20 emails to find a mutually suitable time in the diary.

2. If you could try your hand at a different engineering job, what job would that be?

Interesting question! I quite like teaching and inspiring the next generation of Engineers. Very hypothetically, I’d like to be Engineering’s Prof. Brian Cox.

3. Scientists have recently developed plants that can detect bombs! What new invention would you like to see engineered into existence?'

I’d like mobile phones to have a short range radar device which would automatically tell the user that they don’t have the coordination to walk and read at the same time.


QUESTIONS FROM STEM COMMUNICATOR  MRS REBECCA COTTRELL

1. Why did you choose engineering as a career?

See above. I chose to do a PhD because I didn’t want to get up for 9am five days a week. Engineering chose me by chance because someone went on holiday. There was no career planning or strategy on my part.

2 . If you had to sum up engineering in three words, what would they be?

#Rewarding
#Future
#Careers

2. Where do you think engineering will take us in the future ?

Will we develop Renewables before climate change kicks in with avengeancea vengeance? I don't know if we will succeed but we have to try.

Driverless cars will take us everywhere.

The world population is increasing. People are living longer. Parts of the world are becoming uninhabitable due to climate change or political reasons. We need Engineering solutions to find ways of using our limited food, energy and space resources more efficiently.

It’s estimated there are 10 million people alive in the UK who will live to 100. We need Engineering solutions to maintain people’s health and quality of life. This is challenging as the NHS in the UK ins creaking at the seams.

 
QUESTION FROM HELEN DUNCAN,  MWE Media

IEEE UKI Women in Engineering Commitee

 

1. Are parents' prejudices holding their kids back from choosing engineering as a career?

I’d say there is a lack of knowledge across all parts of society (including parents) about what Engineers do. The IET “Engineer a Better World” report addresses this point very eloquently.


2. How can we persuade the media to feature engineers as heroes, or at least characters that kids can identify with?


Yes this is a real issue. Engineering is such a broad topic and covers everything we do and use. This means it’s hard to specifically convey what it is. Meaning gets lost in the broadness of the word.In comparison, everyone knows what a Doctor or an accountant is.

There is a slight tendency in the media to attribute brilliant advances down to “Scientists” and things that went wrong to “Engineers”. Prof. Brian Cox is doing an incredible job promoting physics to the mainstream. He has that rare combination of being an academic with incredible charisma.

As a society we should ideally be praising the work of Engineers rather than pop stars. There are many more jobs for Engineers than pop stars, footballers or princesses. Engineering contributes > 27% to UK’s GDP but most people would probably struggle to name three Engineers.
 


 


 

 
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