Engineers as Superheroes

Some of our most brilliant inventions came about by mistake. The Institute for Manufacturing opened its doors to children aged five upwards for the Cambridge Science Festival - and showed them just how exciting engineering can be.

Engineers play a critical role in a balanced economy, applying new ideas to address emerging opportunities which in turn drives economic growth.

Dr Tim Minshall

A recent survey of 11-14 year-old children carried out by Siemens and WorldSkills International discovered that most of them thought that engineering was boring, dirty and not very important.  A series of drop-in events that took place at the Institute of Manufacturing aims to set the balance straight with exciting hands-on activities and the chance to test out some of the latest technologies in the exciting environment of a lab equipped with advanced equipment.

The programme – which was part of Cambridge Science Festival – had been designed to give children from ages five upwards a flavour of the excitement involved in inventing, making and designing.  It included the chance to meet anthropomorphic robots and fire lasers. Most importantly, it offered children and their parents an opportunity to talk to engineers about their cutting edge work and ask them about their work and why they chose to become engineers.

In a talk for children aged ten and over, Dr Tim Minshall, a Senior Lecturer in Technology Management, will be discussing the importance of making mistakes. His examples will include penicillin, pacemakers and post-it notes, all of which were developed as the result of scientific blunders.  “Whenever I give talks to schoolchildren, I introduce them to ten words which capture the essence of engineering such as invent and make, do and build. The word that invariably goes down best is oops! – what we learn when things go wrong,” said Dr Minshall.

Some of our best-known inventions emerged from mistakes. The scientist Alexander Fleming famously discovered the life-saving drug penicillin in 1928 when he left a petri dish of bacteria uncovered and a mould formed on its surface. The pacemaker, which has prolonged the lives of millions of people, was invented in 1956 by Wilson Greatbatch, who has been described as a humble tinkerer. Working in his barn, he came up with the concept for the pacemaker when he reached into a box and took out the wrong component which, once connected to a heart-recording device he was working on, resulted in intermittent electric pulses that immediately reminded him of a human heart beat.

The ubiquitous Post-it note – also a life-safer in a more modest way – owes its existence to glue that didn’t quite stick. This made it the perfect candidate for a temporary note that could be stuck pretty well anywhere.  The potential of the glue that didn’t stick was spotted by its inventor Spencer Silver, a chemist working for the giant 3M – but his efforts to promote it were ignored for five years. The first Post-it notes – initially called Press and Peel - went on sale in 1977 and today no office can survive without them. The same low-tack glue is also used for many envelopes.

The survey that flagged up the lack of enthusiasm for engineering among school children also had a brighter side: it revealed that 83 per cent of parents would encourage their children to go into engineering. However, many parents also felt that they did not have access to enough information to be able to advise their children on a career in engineering.

“This finding is really worrying. Engineers play a critical role in a balanced economy, applying new ideas to address emerging opportunities which in turn drives economic growth. If parents can’t explain and enthuse about what engineers do, children are less likely to consider engineering as a career. This means our economy may suffer in the long term,” said Dr Minshall.

“Despite the excellent resources offered by websites such as and, the message still isn’t getting through strongly enough.  We need to develop activities for engineering that mirror the way in which entrepreneurship has been transformed from the shifty image of Arthur Daley and Del Boy Trotter in the 1970s to the mainstream career option via the success of initiatives such as Dragon’s Den and Global Entrepreneurship Week.”

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