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Why is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) important to us?
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Latest Angles

Alexandra Axley
20 Feb 2017

Now, nearly three years into my first “real” job at a consulting firm, I hope I am at least a little bit like Kyla—smart and easy to work with. 

People will tell you that their key to success was putting their head down and working hard, staying the course when things get challenging, or saying “yes” to everything. Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that my success is due to the people I’ve worked with. There are numerous people who have helped me survive the transition into the “real” world from school, but there are four, in particular, that I’d like to draw attention to.

The Inspirer
My first real jobMy inspirer was one of the first project managers I worked with. He so obviously was born to be in this industry—doing exactly what he’s doing today. Not everyone is lucky enough to have vision, but he is. He can see the excitement in the state of the industry and the direction it’s heading. Sometimes he would talk so fast I couldn’t even process half of what he said, but his passion would always shine through. When I’d go into to his office frustrated with the task I was doing (because I didn’t understand what I was doing or why I was doing it), I always left feeling like my work made a difference. That on a whole, Atkins was contributing to the industry in an innovative and important way. 

The Role Model
There were a number of times, especially initially, where I was asked to complete an analysis based on concepts I had never heard of. I have a degree in civil engineering, but never had classes in traffic or transportation. There were a number of times I’d be told to do something that sounded like complete gibberish—and this is where my Role Model comes in. Not only was he the kindest person to work with, but also wonderfully patient. I would do my best to research and scavenge for answers or explanations, but when I felt like I’d hit a wall, I could always ask him. Never have I asked a question without getting a complete answer in return. Sometimes he wouldn’t know immediately, but would always eventually find a response. What makes him so wonderful is that no matter how small or simple my question could be, he never makes me feel like I asked something stupid. He was respectful of my inexperience and encouraging as a mentor. I would not have survived this far without him. This is why I aspire to become a manager like him—a Role Model for young engineers.

The Challenger
In your first two years, the quality of work you hand your project managers changes drastically. Partly because you gain a better understanding of what the documents and analyses should look like and partly because you learn your project manager’s expectations. One project manager I worked with felt extraordinarily hard to please. It seemed like everything I gave her came back with new errors to be fixed. Nothing ever felt good enough. This was a valuable lesson: everything you do can always be improved. This was a frustrating lesson to learn, but also the reason the quality of my work has improved. 

The Support
Sometimes work felt overwhelming or I’d have days where it seemed like I couldn’t do anything right and that I was doing a bad job. Everyone needs a support system, and having someone at work be a support for me has helped develop my confidence and made me a stronger employee. My support comes from multiple people at Atkins. They listen patiently to my frustrations, they reassure me when my confidence is lacking, and they give me perspective when I face new challenges. What I can’t say enough is, “Thank you!” to these people. 

What all these people collectively have taught me is that being a young engineer is just as important as being a project manager or senior engineer. We all succeed with and because of each other. The Inspirer, Role Model, Support, and Challenger have been instrumental in my growth. What I know now is that eventually I will (or hope to) become one of these people for someone else. 

A concept from a book I recently read struck me. I am paraphrasing here, but it went something like this: You need to be selfish. You need to take the time to take care of yourself first. This world deserves the best version of you that you can offer. 

You need to be your best you because you are, or (eventually) will be, the support, the challenger, the inspiration, the mentor, the friend, or any other key person in someone else’s story. You being your best self makes someone else theirs. 

Every success I’ve had has been because of the people I have met and worked with. I know that I’m only doing as well as I am because Atkins is filled with wonderful people and because I have been blessed enough to meet and work with the right ones. My career is shaped by more than just myself, and yours is too.

North America ,

Phil R Davis
13 Feb 2017

It's an exciting time for STEM skills. There is an almost universal acceptance that we have a STEM skills shortage in the UK. Regardless of Brexit, we need to be better at 'growing our own' engineers and future thinkers as they will be critical to maintaining and growing our industrial output and making the Government's Industrial Strategy a reality.

Our 2015 report The Skills Deficit. Consequences and opportunities for UK infrastructure created by the national skills shortage explored the likely impact of prolonged STEM skills shortages in the transport, water, energy and digital infrastructure sectors. Two recent publications have brought this issue into even further focus: Sadiq Khan's ‘A City For All Londoners’ and the Government's Industrial Strategy.

In my role as Atkins' director of technical learning & development I need to be very aware of the factors that affect our corporate level of technical skills. I often use the analogy of a water tank, where the fluid level represents the collective skills of our people at any point in time. The level is increased as the tank is topped up by new entrants, apprentices and graduates; also by training colleagues. The fluid level diminishes when skills perish through technological advances and as colleagues retire. And to extend the analogy further, the tank becomes larger as we move into new capability areas - which may lower the fluid level, unless we are prepared!

So what are we doing to keep our skills tank topped up and how can we support the Mayor's plan?

Showing young people that STEM careers can be fulfilling and rewarding is a great start and our outreach programmes such as Pathways to Engineering and Love Plays seek to do just that in London. Young people can have mixed views about what a STEM career involves and requires from them. Providing contact with our professionals is one of the best ways to encourage, inform and dispel the myths. We have a particularly exciting story to tell about engineering design consultancy, part of the profession that is largely hidden from the public consciousness. So we're really keen to further collaborate with other STEM employers in London, for example through the Tomorrow's Engineers programme, to reach some of the schools as yet unsupported by our sectors.

Two years ago, I visited a school in east London to explore ways of supporting new maths and science teachers. During the visit, I was amazed to discover just how many students were fluent in another language, often from countries in the middle or far-east. In a global consultancy business such as ours, those language skills are highly valued in a professional engineer. My host was also excited to learn of this potential competitive advantage her pupils had in the employment stakes.

When it comes to applying for employment as an apprentice we find that many students are unaware of how to apply - and how to apply themselves to the application process. Our Pathways to Engineering programme aims to level the playing field in schools where STEM students may lack an awareness of how to present themselves to best effect when applying to a professional services employer. With our partner Citizens UK, we're keen to introduce other STEM employers and London schools to the programme and thereby reach out to further, as yet untapped, potential talent.

As a member of the Technician's Apprenticeship Consortium, Atkins has been involved with several Trailblazer apprenticeship programmes, developing new standards in areas related to engineering design consultancy. Presently we are collaborating in the creation of two new design engineering degree apprenticeships. On-the-job, vocational learning is a key aspect of any apprenticeship, so we want the Government to not only encourage recruitment of apprentices, but to make it easier for apprentices to be used on all projects, as their apprenticeship status can sometimes preclude them from working on major infrastructure projects.

We also need to continue to work at retaining skilled professionals as they near the end of their careers, through flexible working arrangements including 'zero hour' contracts that, when used responsibly and applied fairly, can work really well for both parties in these instances. We would like to see proactive support for flexible deployment of all our skilled professionals in public sector work so that we can bring a diverse range of talents to bear on the city's challenges.

Read Atkins’ full response to ‘A City For All Londoners’

UK & Europe ,

Jessica Green
03 Feb 2017

I have always been of the view that the huge push for gender diversity we see so frequently in engineering firms is condescending and undermining to women. I don’t need a support network when I see myself as equal. I don’t need motivational sessions from ‘empowered women’ when I see no difference between the ‘empowered women’ and the more competent of my male colleagues around me.

Strong and weak people come in both genders, and by categorising ourselves as empowered, we succumb to the stale stereotype that women are weaker than men, and we degrade ourselves whilst complaining that it is the men that are degrading us. In my relatively short experience as an engineer, I have received nothing but respect from my male counterparts; the only sexism I have encountered was from another female engineer who, for some reason, did not like having another woman in the office.

I felt patronised when colleagues asked how I thought they could attract more women to the firm. There isn’t an abundance of women with engineering degrees, where did they think they were going to attract them from?! Engineering was simply more for the male‐minded amongst us.

Recently however, whilst working on an international project with a global workforce, I specifically noticed one very alien concept: the Spanish engineers were an equal male‐female balance. In fact, on researching the figures, I discovered that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in the whole of Europe. Whilst I still disagree with the use of the word empowerment, I was forced to reconsider one thing; perhaps engineering isn’t for the male‐minded, perhaps there is no such thing, perhaps we are simply brain‐washed by British society into thinking women shouldn’t be engineers.

The Joint Council for Qualifications statistics shows girls out‐performing boys in STEM subjects at GCSE, yet those choosing engineering in the UK are 90% male on average. Why are so many girls in Britain steering clear of the industry, despite early high achievement?

Firstly, I asked myself why I became an engineer in this climate. Truth be told, I never wanted to be an Engineer; I fell in to it through a fortunate choice of university degree. I was a high flyer at school, I excelled at maths, science and art; and I dreamt about being an architect. The idea of being an engineer never competed. I was drawn to architecture; its prestige, its glamour, and its status. We see architecture portrayed in TV and film as a high‐flying career choice; do we ever see engineering portrayed like that?

The main response when I told people I wanted to be an architect was ‘oh, seven years of studying, I’m impressed’. I wanted that; the challenge, the pride in the achievement of it, and the glamour of the exclusive Royal Institute of British Architects. In reality, it’s a three year bachelor’s degree followed by four years of studying while you work. Engineering is more often than not a four year master’s degree and five years of on‐the‐job training.

It should hold glamour from the exclusive engineering institutions, and even more prestige from achievement. Instead, I turned my nose up at engineering; it wasn’t prestigious enough for my academic history, I didn’t want to spend my career dressed in overalls working in tunnels, I wasn’t captured by the concept perpetrated by British society.

Secondly, I asked a Spanish colleague how engineering is perceived in Spain. His main point was that the title ‘Engineer’ is protected; you cannot call yourself an engineer without going to university to achieve that status. There is much support for protection of the title in the UK, though many dismiss the notion that it would bring about a much needed change in the gender balance. He added that engineers are respected because the university process is tough. There is no additional chartership process in Spain; you come out of university as a fully‐fledged engineer, having completed six solid years of study. In Spain, to be an engineer is on a par with being a doctor or an architect; it is a career for the high‐flyer.

The parallels here are clear. In the UK, we lack a quantity of female engineers. In Spain, they do not. My reasons for avoiding the industry, though perfectly suited to it, were because I was looking for something non‐existent in the British perception of engineering, the same things that are actually fundamental to the Spanish perception.

Despite our lack of the protection that the Spanish enjoy, why can’t engineering offer the same promise in the UK? It will be more difficult with the ‘BT engineer’ and the ‘dishwasher engineer’ distracting from the rebranding, but it isn’t impossible. Why can’t engineering be seen as glamourous, exciting and exclusive without prejudice?

In a society that sets so much score by status, why are we not giving it one? How many girls (and more boys!) are taking a different a path because they don’t truly know what a career in engineering can offer them? STEM outreach should not be limited to showing school children what engineers do day to day, but should extend to showing society that we’re achievers, we’re smart, and our work is challenging, prestigious and professionally recognised. And why can’t we see this portrayed through TV and film?

Engineering isn’t ‘masculine’, nor is it dirty work. Provide engineering with the status is deserves and an influx in women will follow, and what’s more, it will come naturally, and without undermining the women who already work in the sector.

UK & Europe , Middle East & Africa , North America , Asia Pacific , Rest of World ,

Trickle down inspiration

This competition wasn’t a concept generated by adults, but rather three Grady high school students who were current leaders in the school’s G3 Robotics Team and active in the team’s STEM outreach to middle schoolers. These students had joined with me as a mentor three years earlier to form a specialized robotics team, the Grady G3 Drone Team. The goal of this group was to learn more about drone technology, how it could be used, and of course how to fly them.

A key point of inspiration for the team was when they had an opportunity to meet with an Atkins client I was working with, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) Police department. MARTA shared how they wanted to use drone technology in their transit work and G3 discussed their upcoming flight-training program and invited the police officers to attend (and two did). This was a critical point that inspired the team to think about the bigger picture of drone applications and they soon began creating potential “real world” solutions to present to MARTA as well as others, such as the Georgia Professional Engineering Society.

Watch the Grady G3 Drone program overview video:

Competition inspiring commitment

Soon after, the team learned about the 2014 Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Drone Competition. They made a video about their program and entered—not realizing the competition was intended for advanced drone users and research programs, not high schoolers. Remarkably, the team was notified that they were quarter finalists and invited to compete at an FAA approved drone test site in Bend, Oregon. They ended up winning the People Choice award and came in second overall in the competition.

On the drive back to the airport one of the students said, “This was unbelievable, why can’t we take what we learned here and combine it with our middle school STEM robotic experience to create an amazing STEM learning experience?” My response was, “Fantastic idea! If you’re willing to put in the work to make it happen, let’s do it.” After a lot brainstorming the G3 Drone for Good Challenge was born.

Our goal wouldn’t just be to teach kids how to build and fly drones, but rather to understand the physics and engineering behind them, as well as the FAA rules/safe flying practices that govern their operation. And most importantly, the competition would also include a research project challenging them to come up with new ideas to show how drones can benefit their communities (just as the team had learned from the MARTA PD).

Students and adults came together in the planning process. Students recruited other students to help organize the competition. And as the team’s mentor, I recruited other engineers, educators, and pilots to serve as expert judges at the competition. As most of the participating middle school teams had never even touched a drone before, we all participated in conducting teaching, flight training, and troubleshooting lessons.

Building excitement

As teams arrived the day of the competition with the drones they had built, their eyes lit up as they caught their first glimpse of the playing field—complete with a variety of obstacles they would have to tackle. They huddled together in groups to discuss the challenges and develop their strategy for maneuvering the course. Meanwhile, the G3 team conducted flying demonstrations and manned a help desk to trouble shoot issues and answer questions.

As the time came for each team to compete, the middle schoolers had their opportunity to demonstrate everything they had learned over the past six weeks in front of the panel of judges. Each team discussed their drone designs and what had gone into them. They asked the experts questions and learned new ways of approaching challenges. And they proudly shared their ideas for drone applications that could benefit their communities and explained how these ideas could be implemented in the real world. Several of the ideas they came up with included a flying barrier for roads closed by mud slides, flying rescue flotation devices to swimmers in trouble, and supplying villages with food and emergency supplies in war torn areas.

The highlight of the event was the flying competition, which began with simple hovering and landing exercises, then advanced to the precision flying test where they had to burst helium balloons that were levitating a small platform. At the end of the event there were high-fives all around, with excitement already building for next year’s event. The proud teams carried home their trophies, which were awarded for technical excellence, drone applications, flying skills, and an all-around champion.

Watch the G3 Drones for Good Competition video:

Success inspiring future engagement

While I can’t look into the future and say with certainty that this event will cause a student to pursue a STEM career, I think the odds are in our favor. Research by FIRST Robotics indicates that the earlier you introduce STEM to children and make it fun in the process, the more likely a student (especially girls and minorities) will want to pursue it, and the more successful they will be at it.

The G3 Drones for Good has been a fantastic success. The first year we had five teams compete. The second year we had 20 teams sign-up including four of the original five. We have not yet announced this year’s competition and already have a waiting list. This raises the question, “Why should we keep all this fun to ourselves?” Our new goal is help other groups host their own G3 Drones for Good Competition so that other students can share in this transformative learning experience. And as the G3 team expands their outreach, they themselves are learning new leadership, teamwork, and business skills that will serve them in any career they choose.

As one of the team members, Sajjad Ali, said in the embedded video, “It has changed us.” I have to agree. Seeing the unbelievable potential of our young people had indeed changed me too. I’m excited about the bright future these passionate, smart, and creative students are sure to bring about as they enthusiastically inspire the next generation.

North America ,

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