Helping engineering take off

10 February 2014

To increase the number of future engineers private sector foundations are taking matters Stephen Holmes finds the work of one small northern company benefitting an entire county

While cuts to education and careers funding take their toll it is clear that something needs to be done fast to meet Britain’s 50 per cent rise in demand for engineers.

Pupils from Cockermouth School launch their Space Challenge craft

Where public money has dried up, it has left the private sector little option but to step in. A lot of this work is being done on a local level, with some smaller businesses persevering to help young people take up engineering.

React Engineering is one such company. Setting up its React Foundation ten years ago it had the simple aim of offering small bursaries to talented local school leavers heading off to study engineering at university.

Heading north

Based in Cleator Moor, Cumbria, the town is part of a rust belt of old manufacturing towns, mining villages and jobs built on Britain’s engineering prowess 300 years ago.

Now the area is regenerating itself as the British Energy Coast. React, like several other companies in the area, works on projects as varied as new energy and decommissioning the legacy of nuclear power stations.

It also works as a facilitator to bring as many Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) projects for schools to the area as possible.

Recent years have seen its foundation partner with London’s Science Museum outreach group and arrange funding with help from local businesses to put on a free, two week show annually for all the 9-13 year old school children in West Cumbria – 7,000 in total.

The events use a range of fun interactive curriculum-linked shows and workshops to increase the interest in STEM topics, which are resoundingly popular with the students.

Last year React’s Space Challenge set two teams of school children from nearby Cockermouth the task of designing and engineering a balloon and capsule to go up into the Earth’s atmosphere and take pictures.

The nature of the task meant students that previously had no direct interest in engineering or sciences were then dragged into the team.

While one of the capsules successfully captured the curvature of the earth from high altitude, the second capsule crashed landed 300 miles away.

Regardless of the outcomes, all involved were gripped by the challenge.

Advise and inspire

The project was so successful that this year other local schools have asked to join in, while React’s STEM ambassadors are on hand to offer advice.

As React has found, funding is a small part of the overall issue. Having the right people to inspire and guide student interest in modern design and engineering is also difficult to achieve.

The Science Museum events team entertaining 9 to 13 year olds

Teaching staff are not always aware as to what is needed to gain engineering qualifications, leaving potential engineers unable to get on the right university courses.

Being able to speak first hand with qualified engineers from a variety of backgrounds offers guidance and reassurance to young people.

STEM ambassadors

Over two-thirds of React’s 36-person workforce are STEM ambassadors who volunteer to help out with the Foundation’s projects, which continue through to giving advice to students throughout university.

The team visits second year students at Manchester and Newcastle universities, setting up mock interviews for their mechanical engineering students.

It’s here that we can see where the endeavours of React begin to pay-off as they have first-hand ability to spot talent.

React is able to offer a lucky few paid work on condition of working for the company for two years following their graduation.

The curvature of the earth’s atmosphere captured by the Space Challenge team

This offer of work immediately after completing university suits the students, but such contracts also helps ease the problem of talent drain from the area.

“We’ve got the business edge behind that,” explains React’s recruitment and marketing coordinator Irene McMillan.

“I tend to keep in touch with a lot of them and we hope that at some point in the future, even though they’ve decided to go off to a city, we find that locals, when they’re ready to start a family want to comeback here.”

React is quite rightly proud of its foundation and the results it yields: Thanks to its efforts a large swathe of young people are being exposed to not just the skills of STEM subjects, but also the possibility of further education and the rewarding careers it can bring.

“As government funding comes and goes, this is still here,” concludes McMillan.

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