Monthly Archives: June 2015

Happiness is …engineering

164-6499_IMGCreativity, which is an important component of problem-solving, has been associated with workplace success, healthy psychological functioning and the maintenance of loving relationships [see my post entitled ‘Love an Engineer’ on September 24th, 2014].  Engineering is all about creative problem-solving so it should come as no surprise that engineering was rated as the happiest job in a recent survey [see last week’s post].

However, I would like to offer an alternative formula for happiness. According to Timothy Egan in the International NYT on May 16-17th, 2015 when Pope Francis was asked about his secret to happiness he said, ‘Slow down. Take time off. Live and let live. Don’t proselytise. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Don’t hold on to negative feelings. Move calmly through life. Enjoy art, books and playfulness.’

This sounds like a pretty good formula to me. As engineers, while we are enjoying art and books we can take inspiration from art and nature.


Martin L & Schwartz D, 2014, A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93.

Egan T, The pope and the art of joy. International New York Times, 16-17th May, 2015.

Choosing a career is like going shopping

WIN_20150616_121335When we go shopping many of us like to try things out and think about when we will use them, or wear them if they are clothes.  Susan Scurlock made this analogy at the Annual Congress of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council in April 2015 when she was talking about keeping children connected to engineering from the playroom floor to a career [see last week’s posting entitled ‘Everyone is born an engineer’].  It focusses attention on the important issue that if we want to attract young people into the engineering profession we have to let them try it out and we also have to offer an enticing prospect.

This might be obvious but we need something attractive to offer. And here, we have a problem because our male-dominated profession has created courses that appear boring and uninspiring to many in society.  This was one of the premises of a National Science Foundation project in the USA that I was involved in which looked at options for change in the engineering curriculum at university.   The main problem is not conceiving imaginative effective changes but persuading colleagues to implement these changes. It can work and there are shining examples such as those programmes with a focus on reducing global poverty and inequality at UC Berkeley and other enlightened institutions which were described by Sarah Mazzetti recently in the New York Times.

We have another big selling point that we tend to keep quiet about. Engineering is the happiest job in the world according to analysis by the Guardian newspaper on April 8th, 2015.

For more on the results of that NSF project see:

Busch-Vishniac, I., Kibler, T., Campbell, P.B., Patterson, E.A., Guillaume, D., Jarosz, J., Chassapis, C., Emery, A., Ellis, G., Whitworth, H., Metz, S., Brainard, S., Ray, P., 2011, Deconstructing Engineering Education Programmes: The DEEP Project to reform the mechanical engineering curriculum, European J Engng Education, 36(3):269-283.

Patterson, E.A., Campbell, P.B., Busch-Vishniac, I., Guillaume, D.W., 2011, The effect of context on student engagement in engineering, European J. Engng Education, 36(3):211-224.

Everyone is born an engineer

Susan Scurlock

Susan Scurlock

This week I want to enthuse about one of the most energetic and exciting speakers that I have heard for a long time: Susan Scurlock, who spoke last month at the Annual Congress of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC). Susan’s premise is that all young children are engineers. Just look at what toddlers will do if you give them a bag of bricks or when kindergarten kids are given a box of Lego. Somehow we manage to ‘educate’ the engineer out of them before they finish secondary school. So, the solution to increasing the supply of engineers is to nurture these nascent engineering tendencies provided to everyone by nature. Susan founded Primary Engineer in 2005 and in 2014 established the Institution of Primary Engineers and the Institution of Secondary Engineers to support this process. Children can become Primary Engineers through developing their innate engineering skills as part of a programme of activities.

Susan describes it as ‘STEM by stealth’. Her organisation provides training courses for teachers on practically applying Mathematics and Science to design and make activities. The results leave both children and teachers inspired. The Institution’s work is supported by industry, higher education and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. When children graduate to secondary school they can join the Institution of Secondary Engineers and then move onwards to the professional institutions as student members when they go to university. So, there is pipeline from children’s bricks and Lego to being a professional engineer.

All of this needs support and enthusiasm from the engineering profession. So, if you have already made it through the pipeline then consider helping Susan make it pipeline that doesn’t leak.


The EPC made a podcast of Susan’s presentation that you can listen to at:

Robots with a delicate touch

whitesgroup demoCan a robot pick up an egg or a baby cactus without damaging either? If it is a conventional ‘hard’ robot then the answer is almost certainly ‘no’. But if it is a ‘soft’ robot then the answer is definitely ‘yes’. They can pick ripe tomatoes from the plant, too. And play the piano with a light touch.

These are all examples used by Professor George Whitesides to illustrate the capability of soft robots during a lecture that I attended last week. The occasion was a scientific discussion meeting on Bio-inspiration of New Technologies which was held to celebrate 350 years to publishing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. While I was in London listening live to Prof Whitesides and the other eight speakers, other people were listening via video links to Bangalore, India and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Professor Whitesides’ ingenious robots have ‘fingers’ built from the same soft rubber that is used in implants. They are constructed with a solid layer on one face that is curled around the object being picked up by the inflation of compartments on the reverse face. The inflation of the compartments on the reverse face cause the face to lengthen and the ‘finger’ bends to accommodate the change in length. Careful design of the inflated compartments allows the fingers to conform to the shape being picked up and the use of microfluidics ensures it is not damaged.

Professor Whiteside identified star fish as the source of inspiration for the design of his soft robots. I don’t feel that this short piece has done justice to his work. If, nevertheless, you feel inspired to work for him then there’s probably a queue and since he is professor at Harvard it is almost certainly a long one. His research group has also spun out a company, Soft Robotics Inc. so you could buy some soft robots and explore their capabilities…