There is an accepted problem that the education system does not produce enough people who are interested in engineering careers. Most educators would admit that a main reason students avoid engineering-related subjects is because there is a misconception about what an engineer does. Perhaps that is because the term covers such a broad spectrum of jobs, from the person who comes to fix your washing machine to the person who designs the engines of the aircraft that take you on your holiday.
Many professional engineers suggest that the term should be protected by law, as doctors are, to improve the profession’s image. But there are other ways to promote the appealing aspects of the job to attract young people. The use of Computer Aided Design (CAD) in schools could provide one of the biggest recruitment boosts to the engineering sector yet.
All major engineering software vendors provide their software free or at heavily discounted rates to students. Traditionally, these were university students who had already chosen an engineering-related subject. But increasingly, says Joe Wilkie, education business manager for SolidWorks in Europe, CAD software is being used in classrooms before university level. “We’ve had a lot of success at getting our product into schools,” he says.
He adds that he knows of teachers who have given the software to five and six-year-olds with no problem. “We’ve yet to find an age of student who can’t use it,” he says. “Older teachers are always amazed at how quickly students pick it up. People who are young today have grown up with things like social networking and 3D gaming. When they get our software it’s not such a massive learning curve.”
The natural place for CAD to be taught in a secondary school is the design and technology classroom, where it can be presented as the kind of tool most engineers use in their workplace every day. SolidWorks’ software is installed in about 2,000 schools throughout the UK and Ireland, with more than 400,000 licences installed in schools across all of Europe. The package is fully functional and includes the modelling software, mechanical analysis and stress testing. It is sold at a discounted rate of £700 per classroom. Students can get a home licence free.
Teachers have a couple of options to develop classes that involve SolidWorks software, suggests Wilkie. They can use the tutorials supplied with the software or download free material from the teaching community website, which is constantly developing teaching guides, tests, quizzes and PowerPoint presentations. Students (or teachers) can take an online exam for a certificate showing proficiency in the software.
SolidWorks also sponsors the F1 in Schools project, an educational programme that capitalises on the allure of F1 racing to tempt students into engineering. Students use SolidWorks to design an F1 car, then analyse its drag coefficiency using Computational Fluid Dynamics software (CFD). They then use the software again to evaluate the best way to manufacture the gas-powered car, make the model out of balsa wood, physically test the car in wind and smoke tunnels and race it in a global competition. Students also assess the environmental impact of their design using SolidWorks.
Wilkie says the programme continues to grow in popularity and gets children using complex software components. “When 10 to 12-year-olds begin to question why they have to learn maths, they do this and realise that engineering isn’t just solving maths problems but designing as well and can lead to careers as entrepreneurs or in big corporations,” he says.