ICE award-winning STEM ambassadors Sandhya Sreekumar and Helen Littler tell us how working with young people has given them confidence and provided some unusual opportunities as well.
Helen Littler is a Senior Engineer at WSP and ICE South East’s STEM Ambassador of the Year.
I was very lucky that there were plenty of initiatives to get girls in STEM when I was a teenager and I got to meet several women who inspired me to pursue a career in civil engineering. A small amount of effort by them lead to a big reward for me so I want to repay that.
I’ve been a STEM ambassador since 2009, soon after I joined WSP as a graduate. I also organise all STEM engagement and events within the office. Outside of WSP, I have been doing youth work of different types for over 12 years.
The best things about being a STEM ambassador are:
- When kids who think they are ‘no good at anything’ discover they are good at something and the adults attempting to help fail miserably!
- How it makes you realise how passionate you are about what you do. Also the confidence boost it gives you – I used to really struggle with public speaking but now I can stand up and tell jokes. Watch me in action below!
- Never knowing how an activity will turn out and what you might be asked!
My favourite STEM activity is shelter building which I’ve done dozens of times with various ages. My favourite was the group of Girl Guides who braided the elastic bands to create ropes to secure the sides. My attempts haven’t been so great as you can see below!
Challenges all round
We did a day long STEM challenge at a school. My group of girls were convinced that they would not be able to do any of the activities and were very keen for me to tell them the solutions to the problems. Trying to keep them on task was difficult and called on my years of youth work but the team managed to come up with some good ideas. The final activity was building a shelter and it didn't go well – build quality wasn't their forte. Unfortunately, it was down to me to test it with a jug of water with them sat inside it and they weren't too pleased about how wet they got.
Some pupils I’ve met have been very set with what type of job they are capable of and the roles of women in construction. Sadly, my toughest customer so far has been my nephew who, whilst agreeing that I am great at Brio, insists girls can’t work in construction!
My most rewarding days
I did an apprenticeship fair at a local science centre promoting engineering apprenticeships. A teenage girl had dragged her reluctant mother along. I managed to persuade the mother that apprenticeships weren't dirty and meant for those who failed at their GCSEs and are a great way to start climbing the career ladder early. Both mother and daughter went away enthused about what her daughter could achieve doing an apprenticeship.
My technical expertise is in cycling infrastructure, so I was very keen to take part in a careers event which was located right next to my newly built cycle superhighway. Being able to talk to pupils who were benefiting directly from my project was great and they were able to see how civil engineering projects could benefit their community.
I do lots of STEM talks to adults too, as it is never too late to convert someone. One event involved answering people’s science questions including ‘how tall a cake can be’ demonstrated through construction of a cake tower and ‘How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?’ because they are animal civil engineers.
Sandhya Skreekumar is a Design Engineer at Tony Gee and Partners LLP and ICE South West’s STEM Ambassador of the Year.
Developing an interest in any field requires for us to be exposed to that field – and the earlier the better.
How many of us, coming across professions later in life, are left surprised by the details and nitty-gritty of the work – and how many of us may have chosen those careers ourselves if we had better known what they involved?
I feel that so many more students would enthusiastically enter STEM vocations if they simply knew about the opportunities that are out there: what they could see and do, what goes into the life of a scientist or engineer.
My goal as a STEM ambassador is to help young people learn about the prospects available to them, especially in engineering fields, of which they otherwise might not be aware. And equally importantly, to help provide insight into issues that require solutions that STEM professionals can provide.
I was first presented with the chance to become involved in STEM outreach work when I started university. The engineering faculty ran regular practical workshops with school students to build bridges out of paper, rockets out of plastic bottles, hovercrafts out paper cups and plastic bags. Seeing even the most taciturn students engaging with both the fun and the science inspired me to do more.
Engineers Without Borders outreach asked volunteers to give presentations in primary schools – giving students as young as seven an introduction to disaster relief engineering, and the difficulty some communities have in accessing water, food, and other resources. And I became involved with Robogals, which focuses heavily on teaching coding from a young age – especially with young female students.
Engineering at scale
I also had the opportunity in 2012 to be a part the ScienceXchange Chain Reaction: a large-scale community project involving the design and construction of a sizeable Rube Goldberg machine (a fun complicated machine which is used for a simple task).
Schools, families, and local engineers spent a day making and testing separate sections of the full construction using a variety of materials, including cardboard, PVC pipe, water bottles, plastic cups, straws, string, Teletubbies, bicycle wheels, balloons, ping pong balls, a drum kit, marbles, water, apples, and more.
The pieces were then joined together in a large venue to create one massive cohesive unit that started with a drone lifting off, and ended with an extendable tape measure causing a banner to drop. The excitement in the room was palpable, as we counted down to set the machine off, and then watched as the sections around the venue were set off in turn.
The true purpose of being an engineer
The purpose of our profession is to have a positive or useful impact on our environment, whether this is taken literally to mean our ecological impact, or our impact on infrastructure and the built environment – or more figuratively, our impact on the social and personal environment.
STEM ambassadors can prove vital in accomplishing the latter, and not only through showing that science and engineering can be engaging and absorbing. By making people from all backgrounds aware from a young age of available opportunities, arising concerns, and the value of their own experiences, we can encourage more students to take up the mantle of engineering themselves.
Disaster relief, resource distribution, overcrowding, social housing, disability access, infrastructure failure, are all current and future issues that at some point will require the knowledge and expertise of an engineer - but people who are unaware of the concerns will not even think to try. I believe that we hold accountability when it comes to developing well informed future engineers – and STEM outreach helps to accomplish that.
ICE’s 2020 STEM Ambassador of the Year will be announced in June. If you would like to join Helen and Sandhya in inspiring the next generation of civil engineers you can join for free as an ICE STEM Ambassador through the STEM Learning website.