How do you work out a system to transport a bottle of water across the space between two posts using a couple of ropes and a random collection of plastic components, nuts and bolts? And you have to work as a team and you only have 20 minutes to do it? This challenge from the Army was just one of many designed to enthuse the 400 schoolchildren who came to a Festival of Engineering at Xtrac in Thatcham on Friday and judging by the intense concentration on their faces and the smiles of achievement when they were successful, it seemed to be working.
The Festival was co-hosted by myself and my neighbouring MP for North West Hampshire Kit Malthouse. Xtrac, the award-winning engineering company based in Kennet Park, offered its brand new factory space as a venue and the Education Business Partnership came on board to organise and deliver the day. The idea was inspired by the Year of Engineering 2018, a national campaign set up as part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy to tackle the engineering skills gap. Engineering is one of the most productive sectors in the UK economy contributing at least 20% of the UK’s gross value added and half of our exports. Yet, as I know from talking to employers here in West Berkshire, we are short of qualified engineers and there is a notable lack of diversity in the profession – for example, only 7% of engineering graduates are women.
There is a lot of excellent work going on to encourage the take up of STEM subjects at school and we were delighted that all the secondary schools in our areas jumped at the chance to bring students to the Festival. 18 companies including Xtrac itself, Dyson, Thames Water, Thatcham Research, Cirrus Logic, AWE and Vodafone, offered an amazing range of hands-on activities and information and the enormous space at Xtrac, soon to be occupied around the clock building transmissions for motorsports teams and automotive companies across the globe, was buzzing. From spaceships to ice skates, the bubbles in chocolate bars to life-saving cancer treatment, engineering touches every part of our lives. I hope that each one of the students who came on Friday will at very least have a better understanding of this and might be encouraged to think it’s a world for them.