All-girls school MLC providing year 6 students with an Engineering edge

On Wednesday the 21 May, 2014 I was invited to speak to the Year 6 class at MLC School Sydney about my experiences as an Engineer.  The school provides a bridge building activity for the Year 6 girls, where in groups of two they are to research and design a bridge over several weeks for a final day of bridge constructing and testing.  I gave my presentation to the class before the bridge building activity took place; this gave the girls an opportunity to ask me questions and get advice on the engineering task ahead of them.  Having designed more balsa wood and pasta bridges in my time than real ones, I offered simple advice on planning, drawing, concept testing and on keeping it simple.

In June 2014 I went back to the school to witness the construction and testing of the bridges.  Since my last visit, the students had researched the fundamental shapes, styles and well known examples of bridges around the world.  I was overwhelmed with excited students showing me their notes on what they had learnt about existing bridges, abutments, arches and trusses.  The bridge was to be constructed out of a certain amount of balsa wood and glue and a drawn and detailed concept plan was checked before construction could commence.  Testing was done by loading the bridge up with bricks until the structure failed, as shown in the picture below.  Excitement certainly filled the room during testing time; there were squeals of excitement each time a brick was placed.

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It impressed me that the activity was a part of the student curriculum at such a young age and furthermore, at an all-girls school.  The day helped raise the student’s awareness and understanding of engineers and engineering in general.  In my experience, children in primary school years are less likely to understand what an engineer’s role is in society when compared with architects, doctors and nurses, but when they do – they think they are very cool!

We often hear about Australia’s maths and science crisis and the low uptake rates of the so-called STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and maths.  Now let’s put the term ‘crisis’ in perspective.  In NSW, the requirement for HSC maths or science study was removed in 2001, which means that less motivated students tend to drop out.  Statistics from the NSW Government Board of Studies shows that the total enrolments for mathematics for the 2000 HSC were 58573 compared with 29151 for 2013.  On a gender basis, in 2000 47.1% were male and 52.9% female, compared with 57% male and 43% female in 2013.

The statistics above tend to indicate that females are less motivated to stick with maths during their HSC years.  Having done presentations at a range of schools, primary school students give me the impression of being interested in engineering regardless of gender.  The interest, attention span and relevant questions across the audience is generally high for both the boys and girls.  Which makes me wonder, when is the motivation lost for females to stick with maths and science based subjects?  I tend to think it is not due to maths subjects being compulsory in HSC exams, but more to do with the general understanding of an engineer’s role in society.  After all, children may get help from a doctor, dentist, and nurse while growing up, but rarely from an engineer.

As part of an engineering society, I believe we play the biggest role in raising community awareness of engineering and the need to motivate students to stick with maths and science subjects; this does not necessarily need to start in the classroom, but at home.  After my presentation, I was told that a student was very proud to discover that her Dad was a bridge engineer; interestingly, she already knew what her Mum did as a career.  I am hopeful that school activities such as this one will lead the young gender-oblivious minds down the STEM career path.

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