Skip to content
ICE Community blog

A taste of engineering with marshmallows

16 July 2021

Louise Hewlett, principal engineer at Kirklees Council brings virtual work experience with a difference to four schools.

A taste of engineering with marshmallows
Kirklees Council virtual work experience team: (L-R) Ella Barker, Fran Creaser, Suzy Hodgson, Louise Hewlett. Image credit: Kirklees Council

As engineers at Kirklees Council, we are always keen to be active in promoting civil engineering as a career choice to students. As the world continues to operate under the restrictions of the pandemic, we just need to think differently as to how to achieve this.

When I was asked to take part in a planned virtual work experience session, I could see this was a great opportunity to do something a little different to my normal role: to share my knowledge and experience with a different audience.

One week before the planned event, I discovered that not only was I participating, I was leading the whole session. I also had a specific request to give a presentation on bridges, which would then lead the students into the afternoon's group activity. My knowledge of bridges gained at university was going to have to be dusted off very quickly!

I know the benefits of work experience all too well: it was a careers event I attended in year 10 that switched my attention from cartography to civil engineering. This means I’m always very keen to be involved in these work experience events, hoping somewhere down the line I will inspire another ‘me’.

After several days of fitting in frantic researching and writing around the day job, I had a presentation ready to go that we were all happy with.

Then, two days before the event, I discovered the audience would comprise students from four separate schools, with some of the pupils working from home. Oh boy, that set the bar high – it was going to make any group activities very tricky!

On the day, I found myself presenting a virtual work experience workshop to year 10 students from Colne Valley High, near Huddersfield and Upper Batley High, Westborough High and Batley Girls High, all located in the Batley/Dewsbury area of West Yorkshire. The presentation was given, with excellent assistance from my colleagues Fran Creaser, Ella Barker and Suzy Hodgson.

Louise leading the virtual session. Image credit: Kirklees Council
Louise leading the virtual session. Image credit: Kirklees Council

The day was a huge success. I explained to the students:

  • the role of civil engineering;
  • the different specialist teams we have within highways at Kirklees Council;
  • what our current roles entail.

We also talked about paths into the industry, such as the ICE-accredited apprentice programme that we run at Kirklees Council. Ella, one of our current apprentices and currently our apprentice of the year, is following this programme. The remainder of the morning was devoted to my presentation on bridges.

After lunch, we set the group activity challenge of making bridges out of spaghetti and marshmallows.

The afternoon started out as a really daunting experience for me; we’re all used to virtual meetings now, but virtual work experience was something else entirely. It turned out to be really fun and massively rewarding when we saw the students' creations, and their attempts to break the bridges by piling more and more objects onto them.

The students produced some interesting creations; some of them had definitely put in preparation work to ensure they created a really strong bridge. Colleagues in our office did join in too, but some of them were more interested in eating the marshmallows instead of using them to hold their bridge together!

Our final group activity of the afternoon turned into what was a really great open group discussion.

Building bridges from marshmallows and spaghetti is harder than it looks. Image credit: Kirklees Council
Building bridges from marshmallows and spaghetti is harder than it looks. Image credit: Kirklees Council

Taking part in the group exercise the students learned that sometimes it’s good to just ask someone who knows the answer to your question. Alternatively, you can either look up the answer or take inspiration and use elements from something that you’ve done before. They also learned that not all engineering is about building the biggest and the best, sometimes it’s just about getting the job done.

Hopefully we’ll have inspired at least one young person to think about pursuing a career in civil engineering. If we have demonstrated to the students the impact of civil engineering on the world around them and given them a taste of what it means to be an engineer, then all our efforts will have been worthwhile.

Bring on the next virtual work experience!

  • Louise Hewlett, Group Engineer / Team Leader, UTMC at Kirklees Council