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Old Girls' Perspectives on Engineering

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The last Perspectives Lecture of this academic year brought together three Old Girls to speak about their varied experiences in the field of Engineering. The audience gathered on Zoom to enjoy an interesting and informative evening hosted by the Girls’ Division. After a brief welcome from Mrs James, Head of Lower School Careers, Year 12 student Laweeza Ali introduced the trio of speakers: Khadijah Ismail (Class of 2017), a fourth year aerospace engineering degree apprentice currently working at BAE Systems; Radhika Sharma (Class of 2015), a Mechanical Engineer with the British Antarctic Survey; and Amy Williams (née Worsell, Class of 1997), a Chartered Civil Engineer and senior manager at Highways England.

Khadijah was the first to share her route into engineering, which began with the positive experience of receiving an Arkwright Scholarship. She went on to explain why she chose a degree apprenticeship, the challenges of balancing university with work commitments and the opportunities she has to work with world-class engineers and both see and help implement real-world applications of theory.

Moving on to highlights from her workplace experience so far, she shared some of the exciting projects she has been part of and how her work placements allow her to see ideas in all stages of the ‘engineering life cycle’. She also recently met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson alongside a group of other apprentices and graduates to showcase the opportunities within the technology sector and at BAE Systems.

Her key takeaways were to ‘be real and be proud of who you are’ and to always be enthusiastic, as an enthusiastic person can learn the technical skills needed, but a competent person cannot be taught enthusiasm. She also said that there is strength in saying, ‘I don’t know’ as doing so can create another opportunity to learn. Finally, she shared a poem about engineering that she wrote for her first public speech.

The evening’s second speaker was Radhika, who studied Mechanical Engineering at Newcastle University. She gave the audience a whistle-stop tour of her university projects, including the group project in her final year to design and build a Mars rover, before moving on to her current role with the British Antarctic Survey, focused on science support. Her job is to facilitate scientists’ experiments on-site and touches on climate science, ecology and geology. She is currently shadowing a colleague on an ice drill project and shared how her work is helping to make real changes. She also talked passionately about how engineering is about ‘designing a world to include everyone’ – for example, to address the fact that crash test dummies, bags of cement, bricks, and even PPE were originally based on the average size of a man. She said, ‘It’s a world designed for men, and that’s something that I wanted to be able to change.’

Throughout her talk, she emphasised that engineering is used in a huge range of fields and can lead practically anywhere, including beyond engineering itself as the skills involved are hugely transferrable. She mentioned teamwork, problem solving, the ability to effectively communicate ideas, flexibility and adaptability, but also said that many skills are dependent on job role and so concluded: ‘Engineering is such a broad field that there’s something for everyone, really.’

Finally, Amy spoke about Civil Engineering: one of the oldest specialisms, which is about providing core infrastructure such as water, roads, railways and buildings. She talked about the usefulness of work experience during her time at university, and how she targeted her career experiences to facilitate becoming a Chartered Civil Engineer fairly quickly after graduation. She also encouraged the audience to take advantage of awards to gain contacts and support, as well as talking about opportunities to develop further after a degree, and her involvement in mentoring graduates and apprentices.

What appealed to her about engineering was the opportunity to help people and build things that will last. She described some of the projects she has worked on during her career, including working on motorway bridges and helping to maintain strategic road networks. She said: ‘Engineering for me is all about balancing conflicting priorities. There is a rarely a perfect answer. It’s about using technical skills and knowledge to help people to get the infrastructure that they need.’

Amy agreed with Radhika that engineering is extremely broad and there are always new challenges, such as sustainability and net-zero carbon. She highlighted key skills such as flexibility and open-mindedness, but specified that the most important thing is having a passion for problem-solving, as that passion will make it an enjoyable career.

The evening continued with a question and answer session moderated by the Girls’ Division’s Head of Physics Mr Ball, who picked out audience questions from the chat to pose to the three speakers. They discussed Arkwright Scholarships, the worst parts of their jobs, potential opportunities in the amusement park industry, and the future of engineering. All three speakers weighed in on their experiences as women in a traditionally male-dominated field, though they all agreed that they haven’t felt that being a woman is a problem. Khadijah said that she doesn’t like to highlight being a woman because at the end of the day she is just an engineer, and Radhika reminded the audience that there are now many schemes, scholarships and groups supporting women in engineering. Amy also noted that she has worked in an environment where diversity is valued as different people bring different strengths, all of which are recognised. They also offered advice to those who are choosing between a university place and an apprenticeship: they agreed that it depends on the person, and recommended looking at both options to see what would best suit. They also reminded the audience that they are different routes to the same destination.

Finally, Laweeza brought the evening to a close by offering the speakers her thanks for a helpful, insightful and interesting look at the wide range of options that engineering opens up.

The whole discussion, including the Q&A, is available to watch again on Bolton School TV.

This event was the latest in a series of Perspectives Lectures hosted by the Girls’ Division. Previous events have featured Old Girl Sally-Anne Huang speaking about leadership and panel discussions on careers in journalism and careers in the fashion industry.

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