Tackling the STEM shortage at top speed

Jonny Williamson looks under the bonnet of F1 in Schools, an initiative helping to change the perceptions of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

President of Boeing UK and Ireland, Sir Michael Arthur speaking at the 2015 STEMtech conference and showcase at the QEII Centre.
Sir Michael Arthur speaking at the 2015 STEMtech conference and showcase at the QEII Centre.

The skills shortage facing our nation is a concern often discussed within the pages of The Manufacturer.

In his keynote speech opening last month’s STEMtech 2015 conference, president of Boeing UK and Ireland, Sir Michael Arthur summed up the landscape perfectly.

“Put bluntly, there are simply not enough young men and women choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths at school and university,” he declared.

“The UK produces around 12,000 engineering graduates a year – only 20% of the number needed to fill the job vacancies in this country. This is a global challenge to the UK, we cannot afford any complacency…there is serious competition out there and we are falling behind.”

In an effort to help change the perceptions of STEM subjects, there exists a social enterprise – supported by industry partners, F1 management and Bernie Ecclestone himself – providing an exciting yet challenging educational experience leveraging the dynamic appeal of Formula One.

F1 in Schools creates a learning environment for young people to develop an informed view about careers in engineering; Formula One; science; marketing, and technology.

Now celebrating its fifteenth year, the international programme has grown to encompass more than 40 countries, 26,000 schools and 20 million students.

Young people aged nine to 19 are challenged to deploy CAD/CAM software to collaborate; design; analyse; manufacture; test and then race miniature compressed air powered balsa wood F1 cars.

Founder and chairman of F1 in Schools, and chief executive of CAD/CAM solutions provider, Denford Ltd, Andrew Denford explained that the programme is currently being mapped to GCSE Engineering with all of the major examination awarding bodies, and offers what he refers to as “whole school engagement.”

Students are able to use industry tools and learn real-world skills
Students are able to use industry tools and learn real-world skills.

“There are numerous examples of past-participants who are now working in automotive and engineering factories across the UK, including for F1 teams the likes of Red Bull; Mercedes; Renault; Bentley; JLR, and particularly Williams,” he enthuses.

In November 2014 the launch of the Randstad Williams Engineering Academy was announced, continues Denford, “At the World Finals 2015 in Singapore [taking place alongside the 2015 F1 Grand Prix], Williams will have the opportunity to select a handful of our best students to mentor and guide towards a successful career in Formula One.”

According to Denford, the “backbone of F1 in Schools” is the 3D modelling software employed to design the car; an aspect which received a major boost two years ago when Autodesk came on board as a global partner sponsor.

Autodesk’s global strategic partnership manager for education, Matthew Bell describes the beauty of the F1 in Schools programme as being “cross-curriculum” – a world apart from the typically siloed STEM lessons being taught in UK classrooms today.

“Though it’s a programme that obviously focuses on STEM, it also brings in elements such as design and graphics; marketing and PR; business planning; team management, even finance and sponsorship,” Bell describes.

Autodesk Pier 9 Exterior
Autodesk software now freely available to educational institutions across the globe.

With Autodesk recently announcing that all of its software is now freely available to educational institutions across the globe, Bell explains that the company’s aim is, “to inspire the next generation of digital designers and enable young people to make things, especially those who haven’t had access to the necessary tools in the past.

“What F1 in Schools enables Autodesk to do is show that students, especially at the secondary school level, are able to produce very impressive, high level outcomes that don’t require a large amount of teaching in-put.

“Students are able to use industry tools and learn real-world skills that help not only strengthen their own career prospects, but those of the wider industry.”

This is of crucial importance, with The Manufacturer’s own 2015 Annual Manufacturing Report (bit.ly/2015AMR) finding that nearly half of respondents (48%) considered 16-year-old school leavers as being either “poorly” or “very poorly” prepared for work.

Bell laments the stigma that is still associated with science, engineering and wider STEM careers, something he puts down as people preserving “traditional views” of such careers and not being aware of how far the industry has progressed.

More than 200 businesses have already registered to participate in the STEM Exchange.
STEM isn’t a dirty pathway to pursue, it’s advanced, technology-focused and dynamic.

“The great thing about F1 in Schools is that it promotes the fact that this isn’t a dirty pathway to pursue, it’s very advanced, cutting-edge, technology-focused and dynamic.

“The way design and technology currently sits within the national curriculum, it could be argued that they aren’t being promoted as important as science and maths, and that’s a concern. Technology and engineering provide the practical base to test principles and ideas in a real world context.”

Bell, and the wider Autodesk organisation, is part of a growing movement to reclassify STEM as STEAM, extolling the virtues of the arts and promoting it to become a pillar as critical as the other four.

“If we want to truly improve science and maths skills across the country – which should be one of our priorities – it has to go hand-in-hand with creativity, design, technology and innovation,” Bell urges.

Women Engineering Manufacturing
Just 7% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female, according to the latest research.

A contributing factor in the nation’s skills shortage is the lack of STEM engagement among young women, with a lack of positive female role models in industry cited as a contributing factor.

According to the latest research, just 7% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female – the EU’s lowest figure. On a more positive note, F1 in Schools has an average registration rate from young women of 34% – a figure that is pretty much replicated across all participating countries.

Women in Engineering and Science (WES); Women in Science and Engineering (WISE); the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, and the EEF all support the programme, working with Denford and his team to lift that figure even higher moving forward.

Funnily enough, says Denford, the past four world finals champions have all had a female team manager. “Though all female teams perform better than all male, typically a mixed gender team tends to be the best overall,” he adds.

According to Denford, the level of engineering at the national and world finals is “simply staggering”, with every team utilising advanced 3D solid modelling software; aerodynamic testing; wind tunnels; air flow analysis, and four-axis CNC machining.

3D modelling software is the “backbone of F1 in Schools”
3D modelling software is the “backbone” of F1 in Schools.

It may sound complicated and daunting to the unfamiliar, but both Denford and Bell reiterate how easy it is for a school to become involved in the programme, with a wealth of resources available to guide both students and teachers.

“We’ve established manufacturing centres around the UK which will make the car for teams wanting to get involved,” says Denford. “Schools don’t need their own CNC machines – though in an ideal world they would – and the cost of involvement is as little as £8, the price of the model block used to manufacture each vehicle.”

The programme plays a vital role and is totally unique, concludes Denford, not least because the F1 teams see it as natural feeders into their organisations, “After all, we are delivering the next Adrian Newey, Pat Symonds and Claire Williams [chief technical officers for Red Bull Racing F1 and Williams F1, and deputy team principal of Williams F1 respectively].”

A colossus of engineering

Current holder of both the UK’s and the World’s fastest times is Colossus F1 (with an impressive 1.003 seconds), designed and built by a team from Robert May’s School (RMS) in Hampshire.

Evolution F1 crowned UK National Champions 2015
Evolution F1 crowned UK National Champions 2015.

The school has quite the racing pedigree, with current team Evolution F1 winning this year’s regional and national championships, and heading to Singapore in September for the World final.

RMS’ head of technology, Phil Cain began offering F1 in Schools more than a decade ago and says after a couple of years of trial and error and learning on the job, the programme is now producing world-beating successes.

“We made the decision not to run it as an after schools club as some do, but deliver it to the whole of Year 8 – 240 students every year engaging with a small teams project.

“The beneficial aspect of F1 in Schools is that it’s multidisciplinary, the students work in teams for 13 weeks producing one portfolio and one vehicle, with teams not just judged on their car design and engineering, but verbal presentations, interviews and pit display stands.

“Everything is equal responsibility and shared, and importantly it engages both males and females.”

With seven national champions over the past decade, Cain attributes Robert May’s success to the fact that it teaches the programme to everyone, noting that, “Almost every student who’s been in one of my national teams has gone on to do engineering or something in that field.”

Cain concludes, “Our aim for the future is to work over the summer in preparation for September and achieve the impossible, retain the world championship.”