Thousands of school children descended on the ExCeL centre in London yesterday for a celebration of science and engineering.
Prime Minister David Cameron paid a flying visit to the Big Bang Fair, which sees exhibitors from industry, academia and the third sector try to inspire the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students.
The four-day event, which was opened by Business Secretary Vince Cable, is organised by EngineeringUK and is designed to showcase the careers and possibilities that exist for young people with science, technology, engineering and maths backgrounds.
Opening the event Mr Cable said: “Science and engineering are central to economic recovery and growth and so we need to ensure there is a good supply of talented people to meet future demand.
“That’s why government supports a range of work to encourage more people to consider careers in these fields, including engagement in schools, apprenticeships and events like the Big Bang Fair. It shows young people, teachers and parents the vast range of exciting careers on offer, helping to create the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.”
One exhibitor is Jeremy King who has been a STEM ambassador for 22 years. When he retired as a civil engineer a friend who was a teacher said he should go into interactive teaching, prompting him to set up STEM in Schools.
After teaming up with a sculptor who invented a machine which turns newspaper and glue into strong rigid poles that can be used to make structures, he know tours the country teaching basic engineering principles to students.
“My motivation is to get more people to be engineers, pure and simple. I really enjoyed my 30 years as an engineer and I want more people to do the same. I enjoy talking to the kids about engineering and I’m enthusiastic, I’m big, I’m noisy and it works,” he said.
“You do see some people who unfortunately aren’t bubbly and bouncy and it’s a bit unfair on the kids when they’re going into schools like that.”
Last year Mr King worked with over 8,000 students from 6th Form down to as young as nursery age, an important element of what he does and which he feels others have failed to recognise.
“One problem I feel at the moment is that the government money is all for 14 to 19-year-olds. To me that’s too late to be looking at engineering. When they’re 14, they’ve already chosen their options,” he said.
“Let’s accept it. Science and maths is not easy. If we don’t show them what we can do with it they’re not going to be enthusiastic and they’re not going to knuckle down.”
The event also provides an opportunity for engineering’s young stars to have their 15 minutes of fame. Students from Richard Lander School in Cornwall design a car for a four hour endurance race, as part of the Grerenpower Challenge, coming 6th out of 188 in national final.
Jacca Stephens, 14, said: “It’s all about weighing less and aerodynamics as well, so you’ve got to have a very slick car. And pit stops are important as well.”
Cory Marchant, 13, said: “It taught us all sorts of skills and definitely inspired us to do more DT and maybe carry it on in the future.”
The competition’s most impressive designs have been invited to the fair to be judged on their green credentials and physics teacher Ben Lloyd-King believes initiatives like this are essential for showing kids the relevance of STEM principles to real life.
“I’m sure they’ve learned an awful lot,” he said. “It’s given them a good context to place all the big ideas like CO2 emissions and things like that.”
Industry is also represented at the event with some of the UK’s biggest engineering firms, like Jaguar Landrover, Siemens and Rolls Royce, explaining what they do and trying to inspire youngsters to consider a career in engineering.
“Siemens is such as massive company I don’t think at an event like this you can put forward what we do. I think for us the point in being here,” said Claire Williams, marketing communications manager for talent acquisition at Siemens.
“It’s very much to engage young people as much as we can so they go away with a smile on their face and get some enjoyment out of it.
“It’s massively important because you here all the stories about engineering being an ageing workforce. How you replace that is very much a concern for Siemens.”
And other exhibitors like Elena Di Mascio, of Queen Mary University’s School of Engineering and Materials Science, are trying to break down misconceptions about what exactly a career in engineering could mean.
“We are here representing the biomedical use of engineering technology to solve medical problems. It’s to try and combat some of the clichéd concepts of what engineering is,” she said.
“I do talks in schools Most of my talks I ask what an engineer does and they say fixes things. I ask what things and they say bridges and engines, those are the things in their heads.
“They’re not entirely wrong but that’s the perception of a mechanic or a technician and we want to try and get them to think of an engineer as a problem solver, using science to solve practical problems.”
The free event runs until Sunday and it is still possible to register for tickets for the weekend at www.thebigbangfair.co.uk
Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK and the Big Bang Fair, said: “Science and engineering skills are going to be in great demand in the coming years. Our figures show that we need to double the number of recruits into engineering to meet demand.
“That means laying the groundwork early, ensuring that young people understand where science, technology, engineering and maths can take them. The Big Bang Fair does just that, bringing science and engineering to life for young people, their teachers and parents, with a unique combination of theatre shows, hands-on activities and the chance to talk to some of the country’s leading scientists and engineers.”