STEM will make the future, so let’s open its doors to all
Darren Jones MP speaks to IET President Professor Danielle George during the 150th magazine show.
Expanding accessibility within engineering and technology is essential for the UK as the world undergoes the biggest wave of technological change since the Industrial Revolution.
Cross-party MPs came together last week to support the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) as it celebrated its 150th anniversary with the launch of a new campaign to take science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) “outside the bubble”.
Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne, and an engineer by training, Chi Onwurah said bolstering diversity, equality, and inclusion within STEM professions was “absolutely fundamental”.
“Our future is going to be built on technology but if it is not designed and built for all humanity it cannot be humane, and if it's not humane we are in trouble for a number of reasons,” she said.
“It’s also just about the exclusion of talent. Sometimes I think, I imagine, the technology we could have if everyone had been allowed at the innovation wheel.
“So, it is essential from a social justice point of view, and it is important from an economic view, and then it is just so important from a practical level that we are making a world collectively for all the people who live in it.”
Onwurah, a fellow of the IET, was speaking at one of five daily magazine shows celebrating the 150th anniversary, which focused on what it means to be an engineer and how to make it accessible to all.
Vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Engineering, Stephen Metcalfe, who also spoke at the event, acknowledged that historically engineering has an image problem, which has resulted in just 12% of the sector’s workforce being made up of women.
Nonetheless, he noted this was being addressed, with a combination of the IET Anniversary and the government designation of 2021 as the “Year of Engineers” playing their part.
“A lot has improved in the way engineers are perceived; this was the great motivator for the Year of Engineers. We wanted to show everyone, no matter their background, ethnicity or gender, that there was place for them in engineering,” said Metcalfe.
“And so, we have made great steps forward but there is always more to do. What we need to show is that engineering is creative, rewarding, and open for everyone.”
“I think the thing we need to do now as parliamentarians is act as local champions in our constituencies to work with businesses, the IET, and go out and engage with schools, to communicate the message at a local level.”
Onwurah noted more could be achieved by using a positive approach showing the benefits for marginalised groups in joining the sector than focusing on what was putting them off.
“Engineering is a fantastic career for anyone, it can take you all over the world, you make a caring difference, and it has job security, but if you’re not positively inclusive, diverse by design, you become exclusive by default,” she added.
“We all have a responsibility to change this. I see two futures: one, technology is imposed and one where it works for everyone, everyone is a part of it. I want for the latter.”
IET President, Professor Danielle George, who presented the weeklong celebration said: “Although the world has changed since those Victorian days, one thing that still connects us with our history is that engineers continue to solve many of the challenges facing communities across the globe – making an ongoing difference to the world around us.
“Many people still don’t understand the work of engineers or appreciate how much society depends on their skills and innovation to improve our world and make it more sustainable.
“Our 150th anniversary gives us a fantastic opportunity to celebrate our rich history. We also want to use it to engage and inspire young people so that engineering and technology are seen as a force for good and key to solving many of the biggest challenges facing our world. We hope to start an ongoing conversation about the significant, positive impact engineers are having, and will continue to have, on our world.”
Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee Greg Clarke joined the IET for the Digital episode, which built on the idea of how STEM is shaping the future; comparing the current technological revolution to the industrial one that gave birth to the Institution.
“Every part of our daily lives is touched by technology and there is hardly an area of life that has not been transformed by it,” said Clarke.
“With the pandemic, science rode to the rescue and I’m sure for years to come that we will be unpacking the lessons from it but with the vaccines alone it is clear that we must double down on science because every penny we put into it is an investment improving the future.
“We should be looking for diversity, we should not be narrow minded because you never know what is going to work best.”
Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Darren Jones said STEM would be vital in the UK’s efforts to decarbonise with housing, industry, and transport all require “significant changes” if the planet was to be “saved”.
Metcalfe added: “We have the challenges of climate change but these are exciting and if we can get that excitement across we can bring not only address these but bring that diversity.”
You can catch up with all episodes of the IET 150 show here.