Can Jonny put youngsters in touch with engineering?

February 20, 2004

By explaining the mechanics of a dropped goal or a javelin throw, lecturers aim to turn young people on to engineering. Matthew Baker reports.

Cashing in on England's Rugby World Cup success has become a national sport for marketing managers. But a campaign by the Engineering and Technology Board starting next week will unleash the most unlikely alliance yet as engineering gets acquainted with Jonny Wilkinson's drop kicks.

Run in association with the British Olympic Association, the Institute of Physics and the Association of Science Education, the year-long programme of lectures aims to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists by revealing how British sporting success can be "engineered".

The first of the "Engineering in the Olympics" lectures, which are backed by Olympic gold medallist and physics graduate Jonathan Edwards and are aimed at 11 to 16-year-old schoolchildren, will be given at the National Science Museum on February 24. Over this year, the campaign will visit 45 other venues across the UK and, says lecture leader Steve Haake of Sheffield University's sports engineering research group, it will make engineering accessible to young sports enthusiasts.

"The idea is that we'll talk about different scenarios in which engineering is used to enhance sport," he explains. "We'll look at running shoes and how men's 100m times have improved as a result of shoe development. We'll look at the pole vault and see how glass-fibre poles have revolutionised the sport and at how javelins have changed with design features that make the nose pull down to keep the javelin in the arena.

"We'll also show how the laws of physics are applied in tennis, David Beckham's free kicks and those taken by Jonny Wilkinson - we'll go through how he uses the spin on the ball to stabilise his kicks in flight and how the spin of the ball gives it a bit of extra lift to help it over the bar."

Engineering as a subject is in need of some lift - undergraduate numbers fell by 8 per cent between 1995-96 and 2001-02 - and Haake believes that a partnership with sport will go a long way towards broadening its appeal. "We live in an age of entertainment, and sport is an incredibly popular and aspirational thing. I don't doubt that, as more people realise the relationship that engineering enjoys with sport and the impact that engineering can have on elite performance, we'll see greater interest shown in engineering."

That interest is already reflected in the growing number of sport and engineering degrees that are springing up. "We're setting up a sport and engineering course next year at Sheffield," Haake says. "But there's already a sport and technology course at Loughborough University, a sport and engineering course at Bath, a sport design course at Salford University and a handful of others elsewhere."

For those who complete such courses, there should no shortage of opportunities, Haake says - the UK's sports sector is valued at about £16 billion and the government is aiming to increase sports participation levels to 70 per cent by 2020. "There will be a lot of spin-offs," he says. "We're already looking at developing lightweight dynamic crutches for the England amputee football team, and these could in the long term be used to replace the crutches used in the National Health Service.

"There's always been a tentative balance between tradition and technology in sport," he adds. "Physics is a bigger circle of what is possible.

Everyone remembers the home-made Lotus bike that Chris Boardman used to win Olympic gold in 1992. In the aftermath of that win, Chris acknowledged that the new bike had been a major factor in propelling him to victory."

Alan Clark - the chief executive of the ETB, a partnership between business, the government, education and the profession that speaks for the sector - has run several campaigns to address the skills gap in technology and recruitment in the engineering industry since he was appointed in April 2002, but this is the most ambitious programme yet, he says.

'The ETB is committed to inspiring young people to join the science community because we believe it's fundamentally beneficial for the wealth and prosperity of the nation. In the past ten years, we've seen a 30 per cent decrease in the number of maths and chemistry undergraduates, and we've got to reverse this trend. Campaigns such as 'Engineering in the Olympics' will make young people see that science and engineering is fun."

It may, however, take rather longer to change the perception that engineering is not a fun subject to study. Clark concedes that this perception is partly based on the view that becoming an engineer or scientist is "very hard and demanding".

He readily accepts that this is still the case, but he says the ETB wants to find ways to "open up the curriculum more to give a broader choice for a longer period of time for young people's development" because changes in society mean they have more time to choose a career.

"Young people 30 years ago would have settled down in their early 20s, and if you had asked them at the age of 15 or 16 if they wanted to take science that would have been appropriate," Clark says. "Now young people settle down closer to 30. We're living through an extended youth, and to ask young people the same question about sciences at 15 or 16 is premature. The curriculum is very crammed - it doesn't allow kids to experiment, and that's putting them off.

"I think showing the science and technology background to the Olympics is the right way to get people interested in joining the science community."

Young people might also be interested in the earning potential of engineering, Clark says. "There are 25 chief executives with a science and engineering background in the FTSE top 100 companies," he notes. "Engineers are largely seen as people who are important. There's a lot of respect for engineering."

Nonetheless, Clark is acutely aware that the sector is experiencing a "severe shortfall" at technician level in industrial sectors such as aeronautics. And although he is concerned by the number of youngsters entering the profession, he is quick to deny that there's anything "gimmicky" or "radical" about the ETB's attempts to raise the profile of engineering through sport. He stresses that the ETB is simply looking to use different mediums to get its message across.

"People such as Jonathan Edwards are delighted to lend a hand to show that science and engineering go together because he realises the value that this can bring to British sport. Engineering is a diverse subject: there's room for all different types of people and it equips people with a broad spectrum of capabilities. The challenge is to use this to increase our chances of sporting success."

The Olympic campaign will not detract from core ETB activities such as supporting engineering education, Clark says to dismiss rumours that resources are being diverted. "Our relationship with the British Olympic Association is not public, and we're not prepared to reveal our financial arrangements. But this was always earmarked as a key project. We're not stealing money from one pocket to go in another."

Clark does not expect the Olympic campaign to bring in a sudden surge of students taking up engineering as a result of youngsters grappling with the design of the glass-fibre pole used by legendary vaulter Sergei Bubka.

"We're looking at a long-term solution. I would be naive to think we can turn it around overnight," he says. "Over the course of ten years, we'll start reversing the trend. This is just the first step."

There are other steps to come. "Next year, we'll choose a different topic.

At the moment, we're thinking of 'Engineering in the arts', which would look at the way engineering is used in Turner Prize installations, media, films and video work."

It's an idea he sounds genuinely excited about and one that undoubtedly lends itself to giving engineering a much broader appeal. With Damien Hirst teaming up with David Beckham, engineering's grey and difficult image could be transformed sooner than Clark thinks.

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