Mechanical engineering: A driving force in global issues

From Formula One to climate change, the scope for engineers is ever-widening
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The Independent Online

Noise and odour. The scream of a Formula One engine accompanied by a delightful whiff of Castrol R with the contrast of diesel knock, at cold start, and the repugnant smell of diesel fumes. The emotions, intrigue, heartbreak and conflict that lay behind the achievements. The skills, judgement and personalities that made the difference between success and failure." Phew! Who'd have thought that such intensity could spring out of mechanical engineering? And yet these words, though surprising in their vivacity, still play to a familiar tune. Indeed, mechanical engineering has always brought to mind men with oily rags tinkering with toys.

But talk to anyone involved in the profession and they will tell you a different story. For instance, Alec Osborn, president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and author of the opening paragraph, is keen to stress the wider importance of the Brunels of tomorrow.

"The world is totally dependent on engineers of all disciplines. Climate change, energy, personal security, health: these problems are going to be solved by engineers." And with industry organisations such as ECUK (Engineering Council UK) stressing the need for a "satisfactory educational base", and UK-SPEC (Standard for Professional Engineering Competence) demanding at least a Masters in Engineering of their chartered engineers, the academic route into the profession is increasingly seen as the desired standard.

"I'm very supportive of sandwich courses," Osborn says. "It brings commitment out of the individual. You're living the career you aspire to. Very often, it's difficult to see the relevance of learning. But in on-the-job training, every experience reminds you of the value of your learning." To regulate that learning, IMechE produces an accredited degree list which is essential reading for any prospective MechEng student.

And there are some fantastic opportunities open to graduates. Take Joe Vernon, 25. He graduated with an MEng in Mechanical Engineering from Cardiff University and now works for Minardi F1x2 Team.

He was impressed by the comprehensiveness of Cardiff's course, which carries the vaunted IMechE seal of approval. "They don't just teach you subject matter," he says. "It's a complete programme. You get to study professional case studies, you do modules in language, law and accounting, all alongside in-depth, pinnacle of technology engineering."

Active in university racing, Vernon was team coordinator for Cardiff's 2004 entry into Formula Student, a competition run by IMechE that draws entrants from universities the world over. Meanwhile, he spent his summers on placement with Minardi, in exotic locations like Italy and South Africa. Upon graduation he took a job with the team, which has worked with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill.

"You need to be patient," he says of his profession. "It involves a lot of problem solving and that takes a long time. But when you've spent hours building a wiring loom and you plug it in and the car doesn't blow up, it's a great feeling." Clearly, a logical, mathematical brain is a must, and courses and careers alike remain male-dominated. But mechanical engineers are moving away from thisstereotype. "It demands excellent communication and the ability to articulate what you see to your colleagues," Osborn says. "You're in a profession that's developing your personal qualities all the time."

Professor Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria at Newcastle and chairman of ECUK, speaks of the transferability of MechEng courses. "It's an education rather than training. It will give you key skills that will help in all sorts of other areas." Northumbria's four-year BEng sandwich is accredited by IMechE and the university has sent students on placements with the likes of BAE Systems. Graduate jobs can often follow a successful year in industry.

"You can participate in space programs," Professor Fidler says, "develop high-speed trains, or electronics such as mobile phones and plasma screens. To bring that into the home takes electrical engineers, but my gosh, they require mechanical engineers."

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