University recruitment depends upon a range of social, economic, demographic and political factors. The reduction in state aid deters many from seeking education away from home, thus depriving students of one of the most important aspects of a university education, the opportunity to discover one's own ability to deal with life.
The perceived status of various professions results in a strange hierarchy of subjects. In the U.K., the historical class precedence of the arts as a basis for "business" or management and finance careers over engineering still echoes. It is perhaps no accident that the "Star Trek" chief engineer character had a Scottish accent. This is perhaps a not inadvertent throwback to the reality that while in the 1800s British business flourished on the back of empire, it was the engineer, most often Scottish or Irish, who provided the infrastructure for that success across several continents. If student entry qualifications at age 18 alone are taken as the measure of the importance of their future professions, then Veterinary Science would be of leading national importance. While we were grateful for the ministrations of a very pleasant young vet when our much loved dog died, I wonder if that is sufficient.
A Decline in Popularity for EngineeringOver the past three decades there has been a gradual decline in the attractiveness of engineering as a university discipline. Departments struggle to meet their intake targets, despite a range of initiatives. The Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) program is one way that the university has attempted to widen the pool of able applicants. Meanwhile, architecture in this period has blossomed. It might be interesting to compare the relative professional profiles of these two groups following graduation.
Architecture clearly meets the definition that "many are called, but few are chosen," or at least chosen to make a major contribution. Highly successful architects become household names, with their work discussed and analyzed in the thinking press. Yet the majority must spend their working lives on less prestigious projects, assuming they can find employment. Very few engineers reach such heights of recognition, despite the fact that the contributions made are greater. Perhaps engineering is most comfortable in anonymity.
What Has Engineering Done for You?I spent time this summer with old friends at an Australian company in Sydney deploying some of our mathematical drainage models in support of their design efforts. This afforded me the opportunity to see behind the scenes at the Olympic Stadium. None of the subsequent world-wide TV coverage mentions the engineering input to the design, build and operation of that complex. It is anonymous and taken for granted. This approach to engineering is reminiscent of the scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian," where the question is asked of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, "What have the Romans ever done for you-apart, that is, from roads, education, law and order, public health, sewers, etc.?" Admittedly, Monty Python is a particularly British institution, but I know it does enjoy recognition in the U.S., and I hope the parallel is obvious.
Engineering, as I tell my students, allows us to change the rules, and its application should be an aspiration for many school-leavers. Therefore, we must be doing something wrong in our presentation of our discipline to the children and their parents as a possible future career.
What Can You Do for Engineering?In the U.K., a range of initiatives has been developed that emphasizes engineering as a professional future to schoolchildren. The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers ran an awareness program that provided material and projects to schools, until the industry sponsorship dried up. The Construction Industry Training Board is re-defining its material for the graduate Built Environment professional; this is a broader target, but it is welcomed. The Women into Science and Engineering program is perhaps one of our best hopes, as it is inconceivable that 52% of the population provides such a small number of engineers. In my experience, the young women who do enter engineering courses often graduate at or close to the head of their class, perhaps an indication of the hurdles to be overcome in deciding on this professional path at school. My department, in common with many others, offers short courses for schoolchildren where they can shadow staff or students, or participate in exercises designed to awaken interest in engineering.
The provision of role models is also important. Heriot-Watt University was honoured that Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, a NASA astronaut with responsibility for educational aspects of NASA's program, accepted an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering at our summer graduation. Dr. Dunbar, whose grandparents had emigrated to Oregon in 1900 from Dundee, Scotland, returned to that area to present a series of NASA-sponsored lectures and to launch a competition that has already taken groups of Scottish children to Houston. Her tour was marked by packed lecture halls.
There is no simple solution to the recruitment of student engineers into the university system. The way forward must be constructed from a wide range of initiatives, which will have an accumulative effect. Reinforcing the importance of engineering solutions at a time when we as a species face the problems of global warming, water shortages, third world sanitation and public health provision and pollution will be important, as will providing role models. Most importantly we must communicate the excitement of engineering.
Reflections on the Concorde Crash, Paris, July 2000Engineering is exciting, stimulating and sometimes heartbreaking. Readers of this column over the past year will know that in the 1960s and early 1970s, as a student of aeronautical engineering, a doctoral researcher and finally as an engineer responsible for the aircraft fuel system testing program, I spent 12 years involved at a whole range of levels with the Concorde program. That experience formulated my approach to engineering-it was exciting and stimulating, and has always given me the pride one finds in old campaigners who say, "I was there." However, it was heartbreaking to watch, while in Sydney, the CNN live coverage of the press conference held by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority to announce the withdrawal of the Concorde's Airworthiness Certificate following the tragic crash in Paris in July.
In a previous column, I addressed the problems of "Systems, Limits and Choices," and used the Concorde program to illustrate the importance of political decision-making. However, I could also have used the aircraft design to illustrate engineering choices forced by the limits imposed on the available systems. The need to fly supersonic for sustained periods of time imposed a delta, or "ogee" wing form. This wing form operates well at high speed but is a poor low speed solution. Remembering that the Concorde was designed in the late 1950s/early 1960s, it is instructive to seek other contemporary design solutions, such as the F111 and the naval F14 applications of variable geometry. This solution, although included in some U.S. feasibility studies for a Mach 3 contender, was too heavy. Thus the penalty of higher take off and landing speeds had to be accepted. The wing shape also determined engine location, and the need to sustain supersonic flight over long distances dictated that the entire wing structure became a virtual fuel tank. The need to maintain a reasonable centre of gravity on the ground dictated the main undercarriage location ahead of the engines under the main fuel tanks, while the lateral slimness of the wing profile dictated the form of the undercarriage and the number and diameter of the wheels. The high take off and landing speeds dictated wheel design and expected lifetime. Thus, limits set by engineering constraints dictated the choices available to the designers.
Whether Concorde will return to service may again be the result of political choices. If not, then it was a tremendously exciting project that generated a multiplicity of positive "spin-offs" for U.K. industry, not the least of which is the experience of multi-national working that led to the Airbus Consortium-now acknowledged as a major international player in the civil aviation scene. While no plans appear to exist for a replacement or improved aircraft in its class, the Supersonic Business Jet (SSBJ) is a concept actively being considered, and it may be the future of commercial supersonic travel.