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8th June 2021

Gaining experience in a cutting-edge field of engineering outside the classroom

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) professionals really do work on the edge of innovation; they are solving real-world problems every day and are playing a key role in shaping our future. Here Sophia Carpio, former Arkwright Engineering Scholar and student of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield, explores how her experience at one of The Smallpeice Trust’s residential courses in 2018 helped equip her with the insight she needed into the cutting-edge field of nuclear engineering.

Insight into sector specialism

When I tell people, I would like to work in nuclear engineering in the future, I tend to get a lot of confused or even scared faces! It is an incredibly specialised field, which is why I was excited to receive the opportunity to learn more about the sector at The Smallpeice Trust’s ‘Advanced Nuclear Engineering’ residential course held at the University of Leeds.

Smallpeice courses are practical in nature; learning by doing. Throughout the four-day course, we carried out a mixture of project-based work, ‘labs’ and teamwork tasks in addition to attending lectures. Many people wonder how we’re able to study nuclear engineering without visiting an actual reactor, and ‘labs’ allow us to facilitate our learning in a safe, contained environment. ‘Labs’ are a combination of both chemistry and physics work, with one of our first exercises exploring the encapsulation of nuclear waste by mixing different concoctions of cement, water and plasticiser. Each mixture had different properties based on the ratios of components used, and from there we could make decisions as to which compositions would be best to use in industry for this application.

We were also able to meet with some PhD students, who told us all about their research and how it relates to industry. They weren’t working in the field yet, but their research was already making an impact, which was really impressive to hear. Nuclear engineers play such an important role in facilitating the national infrastructure: whether it’s through physics, chemistry, materials science or engineering, and the varied nature of the sector allows people from different backgrounds to showcase their skills.

Bridging the gap from classroom to campus

Although the academic and practical elements of the course were obviously hugely appealing draws for me, I quickly realised that it was very much an ‘all-rounder’ of an experience. Not only did I get hands-on grounding in the area, but as we stayed in university accommodation, it was an excellent preparation for campus life. Our daily timetables were structured as if we were first-year students, which I found provided a helpful taster of what to expect when studying full-time at university level.

My positive experience on the course definitely helped narrow down my options, and make the decision to apply for a university course where I could develop my skills further. When I came to sending off university applications, I was asked about The Smallpeice Trust course at interviews and found it to be a strong supplement on UCAS forms. It’s not easy to find experience without the support of these kinds of courses, especially when you’re only 16, so it was great to add more weight to my CV and build upon my professional development with the help of industry specialists.

Although the concepts we came across were sometimes beyond the scope of our curriculum, they were well explained which allowed us to further develop an understanding of the A Level syllabus. Especially now, in the first year of my degree, these concepts are becoming increasingly important and it is great to have learned about them in detail beforehand.

Combatting stereotypes

It’s key that we continue to combat industry myths, especially as a recent poll conducted by The Smallpeice Trust found that nearly forty per cent of parents believe their child will not be interested in pursuing a future career in engineering. My own parents were slightly hesitant about my choice to pursue nuclear engineering, purely because it can conjure negative connotations of danger and risk working in the sector.

There is also the problem of a lack of visible female STEM role models, which I think is even more of a pervasive issue for people in my parents’ generation. Progress is definitely being made, and peers in the same age bracket as myself probably find it easier to see ourselves reflected in the industry today than we would approximately thirty years ago.

The inspiring work of women in STEM has been integral in the global response to COVID-19, from the Pfizer vaccine produced by Dr Özlem Türeci, through to international work coordinated by Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organisation’s Chief Scientist. With UCAS data showing an increase in girls studying core STEM subjects, it’s clear that efforts to open up the field are heading in the right direction – I’m hopeful that the events of the last year will continue to engage more women in the world of STEM.

Boosting confidence

I really welcomed the chance to meet like-minded students on The Smallpeice Trust course. Everyone that I spoke to agreed that the course was crucial in equipping them with the knowledge they needed to progress the next steps of their professional and career development.

We were assigned a group project on the first day, then placed into teams where we all had the chance to lead our wider team and enhance our communication and leadership skills. I have previously been a mentor on The Smallpeice Trust ‘Girls in Physics’ residential course, so appreciate just how important it is to build self-confidence and make your voice heard.

For more information and to find out about The Smallpeice Trust’s 2021 Summer Engineering timetable, please visit: https://www.smallpeicetrust.org.uk/timetable. Courses are held online this year and cover a diverse range of subjects including Built Environment, Biomedical Engineering, Future Cities, Girls into Physics and Humanitarian Engineering.

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