British engineering students lag behind rivals in competitive events

Posted on 20 Jul 2012 by Chris Flynn

British engineering students have failed to achieve the top positions in two recent international student engineering events. Chris Flynn investigates the reason behind these failures and the changes needed to catapult our students to the top of these global competitions.

The world’s largest student motorsport competition, Formula Student, took place at the Silverstone Circuit from July 12-15. Now in its 15th year, the competition challenges universities worldwide to design and build a racing car to compete in a series of events.

In the 2012 competition, 50 of the 134 entrants (37%) were British but the UK managed just one top 10 place as Chalmers University of Technology from Sweden took the chequred flag. The top placed British university was Oxford Brookes University, with 7th place.

In 2011, the UK achieved only one top 10 finish, halving from two in the top 10 in 2010.

There is yet to be a British winner of Formula Student since its inception in 1998. This prompts anxious feelings that it may turn into an America’s Cup for youth engineering. The famous yacht race was launched in the UK in 1851, but successive British teams have failed to win since its loss in the maiden competition.

Oxford Brookes University deserve congratulations on their seventh place finish this year but questions must be asked about why UK students are not sitting at the top of the pile when we represented nearly 50% of all entrants.

Professor Richard Folkson, head judge at Formula Student and Royal Academy of Engineering visiting Professor for Innovation and Design at the University of Hertfordshire, was upset that the Brits managed so few high placed positions in the event.

“I am disappointed that we had so few teams in the top 10 and it is not good that we are yet to have a UK winner,” he says. “It is a tough competition and it is difficult to get into those top positions but you only win by being absolutely dedicated to it and trying your hardest. Chalmers got everything right,” he said.

Rees Ward, CEO at ADS, at the International Rocketry Challenge award ceremony

Failure to launch

Another engineering competition for students, the International Rocketry Challenge, took place at the Farnborough Airshow on Friday July 13. National champions from the UK, the US and France had to design, construct and safely launch a rocket carrying two raw hens’ eggs in the competition, which is organised by aerospace trade body ADS and the Royal Aeronautical Society.

The rocket is required to reach a height of 800ft within 47 seconds and must weigh no more than 650 grammes. The payload of eggs then had to return unbroken to the ground using only a single parachute.

The competition was won by French school Lycee Louis Bleriot whose rocket reached an altitude of 822ft in 43.76 seconds. They were closely followed by US school Madison High West who reached 836ft in 43.8 seconds.

The British entrant, The Perse School, failed to achieve the 800ft benchmark – their rocket reached 690ft in 37.5 seconds. Perse School were in the competition as British champions and deserve commendation for their efforts, but for the third consecutive year a British team had failed to claim gold in this competition.

Deputy CEO and managing director of ADS, Graham Chisnall, said that while the results are disappointing it is important to look at the wider impact: “It would be nice to see a British winner but engaging as many schools as possible is the key aim,” he says.

But why are UK engineering students missing the mark when pitched against the rest of the world in these competitions?

Oxford Brookes came seventh in Formula Student

Attention to detail
“One issue the students need to concentrate on is attention to detail throughout every part of the competition,” says Prof. Folkson.

“There was a degree of bad luck this year with teams experiencing problems in the final endurance race – but luck is made. Strict attention to detail means that you leave nothing to chance and ensure that failures do not happen.”

Ex-chief engineer at Ford Motor Engineering, Prof. Folkson added that some international entrants receive superior funding to that of the UK entries. But this does not have a big impact on their performance. “I don’t see that having more funding necessarily means you win,” he says. “Chalmers is not very heavily funded but they were the best team this year. Winning is not down to funding; it is about commitment and dedication.”

Space in the curriculum
CEO of EngineeringUK Paul Jackson said that combining such schemes within the school curriculum is a problem.

“There are definite questions over how much space there is in the curriculum for this [type of event] but young people are keener than ever before. It is incredibly important that these competitions link to project work within UK schools.”

EngineeringUK leads the UK’s largest science and engineering event for young people, the Big Bang Fair. The Fair focuses on students aged 11-14 and is designed to communicate the excitement of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to them, to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Mr Jackson said: “We focus our efforts on 11-14 year-olds because they have not yet chosen their GCSE options. We need people to work in the industry within the next 10 years so it is important that young people build up their employability skills.

ADS’s Chisnall reiterated the importance of reaching out to students at the right age if the UK is to produce the best young engineers in the world.

“It is incredibly important that we reach kids before they take their options. We must engage youngsters at the correct age, from 11-14, so that they think about taking careers in engineering in the future.”

Chisnall also emphasised that these schemes must be planned better with schools: “These types of competition must contribute to the school curriculum and they need to have a solid structure if they are to succeed,” he says.

Chalmers University of Technology from Sweden outclassed the competition in the Formula Student event

Wanted: support from companies

Professor Folkson said that more support from manufacturing companies would also be a big boost since these students may be their future. “We need support from more of the big manufacturing companies. We were really pleased this year to get sponsorship from Jaguar Land Rover, Shell, Nissan and Airbus and they were right behind us but we could do with many more.

“The standard that students are trying to achieve in developing their race cars or rockets is no different to what will be required by employers in the industry – they can help us with this,” he said.

EngineeringUK’s Jackson comments: “We could do with much more support from big manufacturing companies but they are careful with what they support. If we can show them that these schemes are having a positive impact then a good number will reach for their chequebooks.”

Folkson added that there is nothing to stop our rocketry and race car protégés rising above all international competition next year but there must be dedication and more attention to detail. This needs to be applied by students, teachers and those that support them, such as manufacturing corporate bigwigs. And the Government might lend a hand too.