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How to inspire the next generation of civil engineers

20 May 2020

Brogan MacDonald and James Kirkham who are two award-winning ICE STEM ambassadors give us their brilliant 'how to' guides on how they inspire.

How to inspire the next generation of civil engineers
Sharing your early career path with students is invaluable, says James.

James Kirkham is a Structural Engineer with Mott MacDonald and is ICE East Midlands STEM Ambassador of the Year.

Having promoted engineering to young learners for many years, I’m convinced it’s the simplest of interactions that make a difference.

It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming, resource-heavy event to get our message across and inspire. It’s the conversations that count, be it part of a larger event, small focused group or supervised one-to-one. Just relaying the satisfaction of helping others and solving problems that others couldn’t is usually enough to spark interest. The variety of what we do, the big machines and advanced tech can follow.

It’s also easy to forget that much of what engineers do as a matter of course is fascinating and exciting for many young people – be it computer aided design in all its forms, getting out on site visits, using ‘complicated’ equipment or the freedom of travel. So, we should include such things when we’re telling students what life as an engineer can be like. It’s not all about the technical stuff – that’s how we appear dull.

Sharing your early career path with students is also simple but invaluable too. Your choices can be a guide for theirs, even if they’re an example of what not to do! Despite the age gap and the different post-16 options available now, you’re on fairly common ground when talking about how you made your career choices.

Sharing your early career path with students is invaluable, says James.
Sharing your early career path with students is invaluable, says James.

Sapling engineers

Presenting and engaging with the youngest learners I’ve always found to be the most rewarding. Their thirst for knowledge and their questions means you quickly find their level of understanding, which helps to hone the encouragement you give and adjust your presentation almost real-time. This is engaging for the students and a boost for your presentation skills. Invariably, I come away having learned as much as them!

Again, it doesn’t have to be a big event, perhaps just a professional engineer’s critique or Q&A session for a project a small group of students is undertaking. They can present to you, then all the work is theirs.

It’s easy too to demonstrate to young students that, as well as core subjects, they’re already developing the skills required to be an engineer; drawing their ideas, creating models, testing things - the links to their future engineering selves are already there! The projects just get bigger.

Bridging the gap

For students with an eye on further education, apprenticeships and career choices, just to see the environments in which we work can be appealing – helping to create an image of where they could be in a few years’ time and giving them something to aim for. Students don’t always get this opportunity so let’s be the first to show them the working world, through an engineering environment. It could be a simple office or site visit for a small group (or a virtual tour in the current situation).

Seeing how engineers collaborate, the importance of every role and the diversity of employees will also be reassuring. Following visits to construction sites, fabrication shops and design offices, students and teachers have often remarked that this helps enormously to bridge the gap between education and employment.

They can do it!

Unfortunately, there’s a misconception in some young learners that they don’t have what it takes, even if they are high achievers. Studies suggest this is especially so in more deprived areas and backgrounds.

Teachers from a school in Sheffield I was working on told me it was a real eye-opener for their students that I came from, and had also studied in, the same region. There was apparently a perception that the engineer of this big project must come from Oxbridge!


In my experience, teachers will welcome you as a link to industry and will collaborate on how you can engage. There are also plenty of resources and events accessible through ICE committees, branches and local STEM hubs. But don’t be afraid to keep it simple initially. And don’t underestimate the value of simple conversations with smaller groups.

Brogan MacDonald is a Graduate Structural Engineer at Ramboll and ICE London STEM Ambassador of the Year.

As a STEM Ambassador, you have the ability to wow an individual student, inspire a group or even spark an entire assembly audience. The impact of STEM activities can be life-changing for many students, providing them with insights into the diverse field of engineering which is packed with career opportunities.

How to spark the next generation of engineers

I have been a STEM ambassador for over two years, completing over 50 hours of STEM outreach activities with students across the UK. I am passionate about STEM for many reasons; addressing the skills shortage in engineering; promoting engineering to women and marginalised groups and advocating the range of careers within it.

I was very creative in school, and I didn’t believe there was a field out there that combined my love for art with my fascination for problem solving. There are many misconceptions about STEM careers ingrained in society, anything from what a typical engineer may look like, to day-to-day activities that a job may entail. It is our responsibility as role models to showcase our multi-faceted industry to the next generation, unveiling the wonderful opportunities and diversity of people and workplaces.

The benefits of volunteering as a STEM ambassador

I have learnt so much during my STEM outreach experiences: how to be a better communicator and listener; understanding the social challenges students face in 2020 and how to deliver technical content in a simplified way. STEM ambassadors have to use a library of different skills that you may not have exposure to in your job, such as:

  • You become a better communicator and learn how to explain technical details in a simple, clear way. A fantastic skill for client meetings and your Professional Review!
  • Provides great examples that can be used in your IPD, job applications and interviews.
  • Experience of running workshops and giving presentations

More than that though I’ve found it enhances my job and personal satisfaction – when I leave a STEM activity and know I have inspired students and impacted change for the future. Sharing knowledge and lessons learned from my education and career journey is a positive, reflective process and has been good for my personal development.

I find outreach so fulfilling – there’s nothing quite like receiving feedback from a student, teacher or parent that you have inspired about a career in engineering.

Fitting volunteering around your commitments

There are a myriad of ways you can volunteer your time to STEM, all of which can be catered around your current commitments. From hosting a virtual careers presentation to longer term projects like the Engineering Education Scheme, there are vast opportunities for everyone to inspire a student. The ICE team in your region can usually help you with activities and resources for careers fairs and STEM club activities. Your employer may provide volunteer time for this during working hours or may even have an established STEM network."

ICE’s 2020 STEM Ambassador of the Year will be announced in June. If you would like to join Brogan and James in inspiring the next generation of civil engineers you can join for free as an ICE STEM Ambassador through the STEM Learning website.

Read more of our STEM Ambassador blogs

  • Kathryn Denham-Maccioni, digital engagement manager at ICE