Lockheed Martin fellow Steve Burnage, appointed associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences at the University of Surrey, talks to The Manufacturer about his new role and how his employers engage young people.
What will your new role entail and what do you hope to bring to it?
As a Lockheed Martin fellow, the company has kindly released me once a week during semesters to help third and fourth year students at the University of Surrey on their engineering research activities. This spans across a range of areas. For example, I’ve got two groups of students looking at designing landing gear for Phobos, the moon on Mars. I’m also helping with individual MEng research projects in some of the areas we are looking to develop at Lockheed Martin. And then there is also promoting areas of research we are interested in. This includes the likes of advanced material manufacturing and ARM manufacturing, with projects already set up. Ultimately we’re hoping to benefit both the company and the students.
It’s no secret the UK needs 1.8m engineers by 2020 to bridge the skills gap. Is increased interaction between the private sector and academic bodies key to addressing this?
Absolutely. But we’ve worked to target pupils during the key years between ages 12-16. By the time students go to university, they are aligned with STEM activities anyway, but before that is the crucial years. We’ve gone about engaging younger people in ways such as donating technology boxes to schools, with kits consisting of Rasberry Pis, robotic arms kits and Lego mindstorms. We’re also giving students and teachers access to our Lockheed Martin test laboratories. Our activities extend over all types of institutions; from having people on the governing body of our local University Technical College (UTC), to taking our materials engineers into a specialist STEM college in Bedfordshire to teach the science curriculum. There’s a genuine commitment here.
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Have the parents of the students had much participation in the skills gap venture?
We’ve made engaging with parents a priority. The ones we’ve spoken to already have been very supportive of what we’re trying to do. But can often be the case of some being rather aghast when a child says they want to become an engineer, so we’ve helped inform what the ins and outs of this are. Our methods have been effective as we now find schools are approaching us. We’re also looking to rebalance the sector in favour of the female gender. Up until 16, the male-female ratio taking STEM subjects is still around an equal, 50-50 split, but by the time they’ve come out of their degree, this has fallen to just 10-12% working in engineering. While the need to address this is clear, the feedback generated so far gives us great cause for optimism.
Which areas of research are you keen to progress with during 2014?
I’m particularly keen on us progressing some of the advanced material manufacturing we’re involved with. We’re working with the likes of Cranfield, Imperial and Southampton, as well as Surrey on this. We’ve got a brand new plant at Lockheed Martin where we’re taking information from CAD software and manufacturing components using the additive manufacturing technique, so we’re excited about the possibilities with that. And of course, I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground on what work needs to be done for future applications and suggest to professors if there are suitable students for the work.