“What do engineers really do?” – it’s a question I’ve often struggled with, despite countless lectures, design projects, guest talks and industry visits. The answer is elusive because, in the most literal sense, engineers do everything. Yes, we do plenty of maths but we’re also leaders, whether of a small, dynamic team or a global organisation. We cure diseases. We empower disadvantaged communities to solve their own problems. We create objects of beauty with the stroke of a pen or the click of a mouse. We make things with our bare hands. We harvest energy from the breath of the wind and the glint of the sun. We build machines that perceive and reason, forcing us to question the human mind.
Given all this diversity, why assign a single label to ‘engineers’ in the first place? To me, the unifying factor is optimism. Optimism that the world of tomorrow can be happier, healthier, fairer and yet more ambitious than the world of today, and that the way to get there is not by empty talk and posturing, but by tangible action. To flagrantly invert the immortal line from Dead Poets Society…
“Engineering is not merely a noble pursuit, necessary to sustain life; it encapsulates almost completely the essence of life. The verses that engineers contribute to the play of life tell the most dramatic and enduring stories of human history”
- The architectural embodiment of culture through the ages, from Giza to Dubai via Paris and Manhattan;
- The factories of the industrial revolution, which built the modern world;
- The transportation systems that allow us to experience the joy and awe of travel;
- The tools of communication and dissemination, from Gutenberg’s printing press to the social media platforms that chronicle and influence nearly three billion lives today.
Not to diss poets or anything, but find me a limerick that has been so seismic.
The student society I’m part of, Engineers Without Borders, seeks to communicate this message of optimism, not least with our Engenius podcast series. Founded and run by students here at the University of Bristol, Engenius explores the future, by interviewing the pioneering engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators of today. We discuss their motivations and the impact their work has on our lives and on our planet.
We target an audience that really needs to hear these stories: school and sixth-form students who are deciding how to continue their education or vocational training. We unequivocally wish to appeal to all such people, regardless of social background, ethnicity, gender and religion. Whatever their skills and interests, our principal aim is to inspire young people into a career in engineering, where they may tackle the most pressing global challenges of today and build the optimistic world of tomorrow. That said, we believe our episodes can be valuable and inspiring to people at any stage of life.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that our guests to date have come from extremely varied backgrounds. They include:-
- Andrew Lamb, global innovation lead at Field Ready, an organisation which uses advanced manufacturing technologies like 3D printing to bring lifesaving supplies on-demand to disaster relief zones.
- Ruth Bourne, a truly inspirational lady who operated mechanical ‘bombe’ computers at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre during World War II, working alongside Alan Turing to crack the Enigma cypher and turn the tide of the war.
- Trish Johnson and Nicola Grahamslaw, the engineers responsible for preserving Brunel’s two Bristolian masterpieces – the Clifton Suspension Bridge and SS Great Britain – using a subtle blend of old and new technologies.
- Ian Tansley, founder and CTO of Sure Chill, who told us about his unique refrigeration system with the potential to revolutionise food and pharmaceutical supply in developing countries and touch many millions of lives.
Our conversations uncover the human beings behind the work – their dreams, motivations and philosophies – all of which is so crucial, yet so often lost in discussions of science and technology.
You may spot that half of our interviewees are women. Brilliant, talented female engineers have always deserved recognition on an equal footing with their male colleagues and, finally, their potential is being realised. Gone are the days when engineering was the preserve of a single demographic. In an uncertain world with countless social challenges and a looming climate emergency, the stakes are simply too high for it to be anything but inclusive.
You can find all the Engenius podcasts at http://engeniuspod.org/.
Tom completed his MEng in Engineering Design at the University of Bristol in 2019 and is currently studying for a PhD in artificial intelligence in the Department of Engineering Mathematics. You can find out more about Tom’s research on his personal website.