Yesterday I was at University of Essex in Colchester supporting the local Big Bang fair representing the Institution of Civil Engineers. The event was more careers fair than the big STEM event of last year but over four sessions I still got to speak to many many yr 9 and 10 students many of who were genuinely interested in the industry. It was also very pleasing that a significant number of those who came to our stand – possibly as many as 50% – were girls.
I was there with others to promote Civil Engineering as a career and to highlight the work I do as a professional civil engineer for my employer Taylor Woodrow (A division of Vinci). With their support I had prepared a paper bridge activity / demonstration which I was going to be working on during the event.
I was to be sharing the work on the ICE stand with two other civil engineers – Glen Owen who is the Regional Director of ICE East of England region and Michelle Nixon the ICE Essex Branch Schools Liaison Officer. Things didn’t pan out as planned however as Michelle was only able to be there for a couple of hours due to an unexpected home issue and Glen didn’t make it at all as he was struck down with a stomach bug.
So I was there early and set up with plenty of time which I made the most of to try and get some of my paper bridge built as I suspected that I wouldn’t have much time to do so once the students started coming in.
We had four 45 minute sessions where groups from a number of local schools spent time in the hall visiting the various stands and talking to those manning them. These were great sessions we had a lot of interest from students and teachers and also from Uni student ambassadors/helpers. This was helped by me building my bridge which attracted some who just came to enquire what I was doing.
Most of the students were interested in civil engineering as a career and all seemed to be interested in learning about the range of work that civil engineers do. It was great to open their eyes to all the things they take for granted every day like electricity and water and sewage disposal and the role civil engineers having in providing the infrastructure for these and most other aspects of our day to day lives. Most the the students when first asked where electricity comes from to charge their iphones said the socket in the wall!
While talking to the students and drinking and trying to eat I tried desperately to assemble the paper bridge in time which included having to make some of the members. The bridge consisted of two tubular trusses about 2m long made with tubes of rolled up A4 paper with cardboard ‘deck plates’ between them. The tubes were connected with 5mm bolts and were colour coded (on one truss) red for compression members and blue for tension (hope I got them all correct!).
One highlight of the morning was the launch of the Soyuz rocket with Tim Peake aboard which was shown live on an enormous screen. This prompted much discussion on rockets and the ISS and the role civil engineers played in that and in everything else in life.
I managed to finish the bridge with a little help from some of the students in the last schools session of the day and (without checking it over) we set up for load testing it. This we were doing with tins of fruit and veg which we had brought for the purpose of (60 of them). The tins were paid for by Taylor Woodrow and will go to a food bank afterwards.
With the help of two uni students we carefully and evenly loaded up the bridge until it (prematurely) failed. It took less than I had hoped and failed in some interesting ways that allowed some interesting discussions with the students about how and why it failed. One reason was a single tension member that had not been secured in our haste and the lack of a pre-loading check and ‘permit to load’ ultimately led to its downfall.
One of the points I made to many of the students when looking at the collapsed bridge was that we learned a great deal from failure – and probably far more than we do from success. Failure is often a good thing and makes us stronger. People should not be afraid to fail.