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Bloodhound LSR: inspirational or irresponsible?

Image credit: Charlie Sperring

Should we be using fast cars and rockets to inspire future generations of engineers?

The Bloodhound LSR (Land Speed Record) team has been in the South African desert, testing the latest version of a car they hope will break the land speed record in the next year or two. If, that is, they can get the finance to develop the necessary technologies.

When the original project was conceived in 2006 (under way in 2008), the previous owner, Richard Noble, secured a major part of his funding by presenting the project as the perfect way of getting children and young people into STEM subjects. In 2009, Bloodhound Education began its work in schools.

Noble’s project ran out of money in 2018, with no world record attempt made. There will still be, no doubt, a skills shortage when new owner, Ian Warhurst, must find his own LSR funding next year. Warhurst’s company Grafton LSR Ltd isn’t directly linked with the education programme, but he has already said publicly that he hoped more people would get involved in and excited about engineering as a result of his project.

Climate-change scenarios are getting scarier by the week, though, and this is a fuel-guzzling supercar. Is this the right way to be inspiring the next generation of engineers and tech experts? Opinion is divided.

Bloodhound LSR 3

Image credit: Charlie Sperring

“If you make it seem like the ultimate engineering activity is what you would do in an F1 team, then you end up with people with a narrow focus on highly technical and numerical skills with not necessarily much interest in environmental and social consequences of what they’re doing, which is where we’ve got to now,” says Professor Peter Guthrie from Cambridge University, an expert in sustainable development for engineering.

Guthrie adds. “We want to avoid the idea that engineers are technicians who have no ethical responsibility.”

Mike Ford – STEM outreach communicator for Bloodhound Education, thinks that to inspire kids you must get their attention. “It’s human nature to want to push back boundaries and go to the next step,” Ford says. “We have great technologies in the world now, but (this car shows) how things are moving on. So what is possible?”

Bloodhound’s engineering director, Frantz Nehammer, agrees. “Young people are attracted to the car, what it is and why it can go so fast, and what people have to do to make this happen,” he says. This could be the Rolls-Royce EJ200 jet engine, normally found in a Eurofighter Typhoon. Or the solid aluminium wheels with a V-shaped keel that digs into the desert’s mud surface when the car is stationary. As speeds increase, the wheels rise out of the mud surface and plane in much the same way as a speedboat rides on the surface of water.

Perhaps young people might also be inspired by the array of remote sensors: sited every 1km along the 16km desert track to record wind speed, gust speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and barometric pressure – all environmental changes that could affect the car at such high speeds.

“This project covers many different engineering disciplines and demonstrates the complex use of technology to improve performance to new levels,” Nehammer adds.

Bloodhound LSR 2

Image credit: Charlie Sperring

The Bloodhound car is now being designed, initially, to break the land speed record at 763.035mph (1227.985km/h), rather than reach the 1,000mph mark, which was its predecessor’s stated goal. Once the record is broken, only then will the Bloodhound LSR team look towards 1000mph (1609.34km/h).

The purpose of this year’s South Africa trials is to test the car’s systems in sequence and gather data, so staff can better understand how the car behaves as it approaches the sound barrier. The Bloodhound team also wanted to calculate how much aerodynamic drag the bodywork generates, how much power the car needs and what effect all this has on the car itself, and the safety of the driver.

Workshops run by Bloodhound Education attempt to simulate the sort of trials the team face – speed challenges, a 3D printing workshop, design and manufacturing. In a coding challenge, young people use micro:bit microcomputers to experience reaction time.

“The Jeremy Clarkson days of engineering are over. Society is going to need a myriad of green jobs and the education system as it is not fit for purpose. Sustainability needs to be a core part of all STEM teaching.”

Melanie Harwood, eduCCate Global

“The car is the context, we build subjects into it,” Mike Ford says. “How to look after the car in the desert, the people, power requirements, wind energy, it’s almost endless where you can take it” – if you’re into cars and rockets, that is.

Helena Livesey, a mechanical design engineer with the UK Atomic Energy Authority's RACE team (Remote Applications for Challenging Environments), thinks a wider inspirational appeal is needed to meet future industry needs.

“When I started my university degree I thought I’d chosen the wrong course because everyone else was interested in cars and I wasn’t,” says Livesey, who is part of a team of engineers who designed a robot shaped like a crab that picks up cigarette butts off the beach, which won the IET Global Challenge, a competition run with Greenpeace and the Green Seas Trust.

“Climate problems are on kids’ minds a lot,” she adds, “problems they hear about, many are worried and to be told that they can change the world is very inspiring.”

Bloodhound LSR 4

Image credit: Charlie Sperring

To capitalise on young people’s burgeoning interest in the environment, the United Nations has introduced a global climate change training and accreditation programme for teachers. UK-based educationalist Melanie Harwood has set up an online community, eduCCate Global, where accredited teachers, their schools and communities can access resources and support. “The Jeremy Clarkson days of engineering are over,” Harwood says. “Society is going to need a myriad of green jobs and the education system as it is not fit for purpose. Sustainability needs to be a core part of all STEM teaching.”

Teacher Fiona Heslam from Energy Coast UTC in Cumbria, runs a climate-change enrichment class where children look at sustainable engineering solutions to local environmental issues that affect their daily lives – particularly flood defences and plastic pollution in the nearby Whitehaven Harbour, and the recycling of water cans sold at the school.

“You can bleat on, write to your MP, but it feels like nothing is being done,” she says. “By inspiring young people to look at alternative technologies and design solutions to problems, that’s a powerful way of moving things forward.”

Another accredited climate-change teacher, Meryl Bachelder from Corbridge Middle School in Cumbria, has found that the sustainable approach has got more girls interested in STEM subjects. “Girls seem to get the environment at this age,” she says. “Maybe it’s their way of rebelling against a status quo, set in place by middle aged and elderly men who make an awful lot of money at the expense of the planet.”

Bloodhound LSR 5

Image credit: Charlie Sperring

Obviously, a tin can or plastic bottle isn’t as interesting as a super-fast car, but the problem-solving process by which kids can engage with these mundane objects to make a difference to their own environment, whilst also learning about technology and the engineering process, certainly is.

This approach makes sense, even if we only consider the narrow interest of industry in terms of the numbers of young people engaged. Many young people are sparked by cool content – fast cars, rockets, snazzy tech. Yet many more are motivated by cool processes – problem-solving tasks that spark their imagination and give them a chance to create, communicate and influence.

The way things go will probably depend on whether industry and society want highly efficient functionaries who follow rules and make money for their companies, or creative free-thinking people with a social conscience.

Yet perhaps we can have both. If everything goes to plan, Bloodhound will attempt the land speed record next year. Cue more fanfare, media coverage and opportunities for kids to get inspired by very fast cars, and for critics to complain about environmental responsibility.

However, what if in the not too distant future, an eco-friendly vehicle capable of breaking the land speed record was to emerge from the workshop of an engineer inspired by his or her climate change classes at school, and by watching the Bloodhound car career around the South African desert?

Now there’s a task that ambitious, technical, creative and eco-friendly minds could all get stuck into.

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