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Introducing young people to a less obvious side of civil engineering

11 September 2019

Kalina Dimitrova, Graduate Engineer at Goodson Associates, demonstrates ICE Scotland's Rapid Response Challenge pack for STEM ambassadors.

Introducing young people to a less obvious side of civil engineering
Students solving the water distribution challenge

In February, school pupils from across the north of Scotland found out what a career in engineering is all about when they attended the first Engineering Career Day at the University of Aberdeen.

Forty 14 to 17-year-old pupils from 10 schools came from as far as Portree on the Isle of Skye and as close as St Machar academy in Aberdeen to take part in engaging, hands-on workshops.

Fellow civil engineer John Iroh and I chose to run the water distribution system challenge – part of the ICE Scotland Rapid Response Challenge pack. This activity might not be obvious to a young person when thinking of civil engineering, definitely less so than building a bridge, or a tower.

One of the key aims of the whole day was to introduce different engineering disciplines, i.e. to highlight what civil engineering is and what civil engineers do – which could easily be woven into the narrative of the challenge.

So as well as facilitating the civil engineering workshop, we shared our experiences of student life and the career beyond.

Building a water system after a disaster

The water distribution challenge consists of building a system after a disaster that will allow water to flow from the clean water source (bucket 1) to a local village storage tank/ well (bucket 2) using only the materials provided.

We wanted to engage the pupils in critical and creative thinking. We had 12 pupils per session and split them into teams of six, which is about the maximum size for working together as an effective team.

We had all the materials set up beforehand and once we gave them the instructions, we were able to let them work independently.

While they were working on the practical part of the challenge, we kept a note of the time it took them to transport their water, and the depth of water in the ‘village’ bucket. At the end, as the pupils were dismantling their systems, we had a discussion about what worked best and why.

As the workshop was indoors, we couldn’t use water, so we substituted it with clear marbles. The pupils had a lot of fun collecting the ‘spilled’ water when testing their systems. You can also adjust the length of the course i.e. distance between bucket 1 and bucket 2 depending on the space you’re setting up the task in.

Allowing them to complete the tasks on their own helped the pupils realise how capably they could design and build feasible systems. They were proud of their achievements and were definitely having fun, too. It showed them that they could solve real engineering problems, and that we all have the ability to become engineers.

We saw a wide range of systems. The most successful was formed by three tripods to support the pipes and used the least amount of materials to complete the challenge.

At the end of the session we gave informal presentations about our careers and how we got to where we are and gave out ICE careers leaflets. Throughout the day we ran the activity 3 times with each workshop lasting 45 minutes.

About the Water Distribution Challenge

The Water Distribution Challenge is a module within the ICE Rapid Response Engineering Challenge (RREC), which is an ICE Schools engagement resource available from our STEM Ambassador Resource Sharing Centre.

The activity is an interdisciplinary project based on the engineering response to a natural disaster and is aimed at ages 11-14 (though it can be adapted for other age groups).

The challenge highlights the role of civil engineers, demonstrating the relevance to the world of work, as well as realising all the positive aspects of a wholly collaborative, and active, interdisciplinary learning experience.

The RREC develops a range of skills for life, work and learning, including teamwork and communication, and links directly into the development of responsible citizens. Through taking part in the challenge, learners gain an understanding of what life is like in less economically-developed countries and grasp the difficulties in providing basic necessities in the event of natural disasters.

This event was organised by the School of Engineering at the University of Aberdeen, in collaboration with the Reach programme. It was supported by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) and the Electrical & Electronic Engineering (EEE) student society.

For any questions about or access to the Water System Distribution Challenge please get in touch at [email protected].

  • Kalina Dimitrova, Graduate Engineer at Goodson Associates at Goodson Associates