Finding the balance between man and the environment

Engineers study the basis of everyday life, and are at the forefront of tackling the impact of our consumer society on the world's fragile ecosystem
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The Independent Online

Engineers are practical problem-solvers, but the idea of an engineer as a man in blue overalls wielding a spanner is truly outdated. The problems facing people across the world today are the cornerstone of many an engineering company's work - especially tackling the environmental impacts of our consumer society. The men and women who are engineers today are computer-literate, numerate, creative designers. They are also good communicators and team workers who enjoy turning ideas into reality.

Engineers are practical problem-solvers, but the idea of an engineer as a man in blue overalls wielding a spanner is truly outdated. The problems facing people across the world today are the cornerstone of many an engineering company's work - especially tackling the environmental impacts of our consumer society. The men and women who are engineers today are computer-literate, numerate, creative designers. They are also good communicators and team workers who enjoy turning ideas into reality.

"Engineers are very creative but very practical," says Dr Denise Morrey, head of engineering at Oxford Brookes University. "They turn ideas into products, and they need a good grasp of maths."

Engineering covers a wide variety of disciplines. Whichever aspect students choose to study, there are exciting new concepts taking place.

Automotive engineering is very popular at Oxford Brookes, which is located at the heart of the motor sports industry, and it is not just men who are interested in vehicle design. As Dr Morrey says: "We get more women coming in to motor sports than the other subjects we teach."

More women than ever before are also entering other areas, such as chemical engineering. This is about applying chemistry on an industrial scale. It is about changing raw materials into everyday products, and this involves problem-analysis, teamwork and conceptual thinking, which women are good at.

Victoria Garcia Sakai, 23, is doing a PhD in chemical engineering at Imperial College, London and she enjoys the subject because she sees it as "the basis for everything in everyday life. Without chemical engineers, you couldn't make anything". To be a good chemical engineer, she thinks you need to be "open-minded, because this is a discipline where you never work on your own - you are always working in groups and talking with people, you need to be good at communicating, very good at analysing problems, and you do have to be pretty good at maths."

A strong background in maths and the sciences is usually a necessity for a degree, but the requirements are changing, as Professor Robert Pond from the department of engineering at Liverpool University explains: "Traditionally, engineering is based on physics and maths, but with changes in school education over the past 10 years, this is a diminishing pool, and fewer and fewer people are emerging with maths and physics at A-level, so we have had to adapt and sometimes accept people without strong results in maths and physics. We may then ask them to do a foundation course in engineering."

Job prospects for chemical engineers are very good. Eileen Lawson, deputy chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, claims that "in excess of 70 per cent of new graduates go into long-term professional work within three months of graduating, the average starting salary is about £20,000 and the average salary for 40- to 45-year-olds is between £45,000-£50,000."

Emma McLeod did a degree in chemical engineering and then joined Cadbury Ltd as a process engineer. Her job is to decide how to produce new products on a large scale. "My tasks involve doing design calculations and drawings on my own, problem-solving, and briefing the creative marketing people about the product. I was also a member of a weekly taste panel, so I got to eat what I made." She finds the most satisfying thing about her job is "walking into a shop and seeing the product that I've just spent a year working on, sitting on the shelf".

An important derivativeof chemical engineering is process integration. This isa design methodology for improving the overall performance and efficiency of industry. Barry Firth is director of the centre for process integration at UMIST. He explains: "We research into the physics of operations and use technology to target optimum design solutions for whole factory sites."

Multinational companies need the latest research because they are operating under stringent regulations to comply with environmental legislation, and as Mr Firth says: "Process integration technology can reduce gaseous emissions by up to 30 per cent, reduce the use of fresh water by 30 to 60 per cent and it can reduce contaminated effluent entering the ecosystem; it really can address the environmental problems that the huge refining industries are facing."

Finding environmentally friendly ways of developing industry is a bedrock of engineering. Catalytic converters, lead-free petrol, reduced-sulphur diesel and new recycling technologies are all the result of chemical engineering, and as Eileen Lawson says: "We need to find a balance between the consumer's desire for more products at lower cost andthe environmental impact. We need a sustainable future and work out our priorities."

Studying for a degree in engineering has its serious side, such as tackling environmental issues, but it also has a more light-hearted side as well. As Dr Jon Trevelyan, lecturer in the School of Engineering at Durham University says: "Engineering can be fun. From the very first week when you arrive, you could be designing and building a hovercraft."

There will be fun in an engineering course, but the fact is that the whole area of science and engineering will become increasingly vital for the advancement of the economy, nationally and internationally.

As Professor Pond of Liverpool University says: "All new developments in a modern technological society depend on engineering, and the nature of manufacturing is going to change very dramatically over the next 10 years or so."

Further info: www.cpi.umist.ac.uk; www.whynotchemeng.com

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