Inspire the next generation of civil engineers - Frances Ratcliffe

I have been promoting civil engineering as a STEM Ambassador for over 10 years now. During that time, the world of STEM Ambassadors has changed significantly as have my reasons for being involved.

Frances Ratcliffe is a Chartered Civil Engineer and the Lead Consultant for Bridges & Structures in Fife Council’s Roads & Transportation Services.  She is a former Chair of ICE Scotland and ICE Scotland’s STEM Ambassador of the Year 2019.
Frances Ratcliffe is a Chartered Civil Engineer and the Lead Consultant for Bridges & Structures in Fife Council’s Roads & Transportation Services. She is a former Chair of ICE Scotland and ICE Scotland’s STEM Ambassador of the Year 2019.

My first activity involved helping teams of children build paper bridges to carry model cars at a careers fair. At the time, I was a graduate engineer and I was looking for ways to engage with ICE and tick some boxes in my professional development. So, I suppose you could say my motives weren’t entirely selfless. The term STEM Ambassador didn’t even exist then.

However, over the following years, I became more involved with ICE and developed an awareness of the predicted skills shortage in STEM careers. I shouldn’t have been surprised as my first experience had shown most children either hadn’t heard of civil engineering or had a very distorted idea of what engineers did. “That’s the guy that laid my mum’s patio, right?”

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Basically, unless someone in the family was a civil engineer, that career choice wasn’t on their radar. So, I became much more involved in schools activity, and encouraged colleagues to do so, in an effort to raise awareness of civil engineering and support my Institution’s objectives.

Primary school pupils take part in a STEM event to learn from those working in local industries.

It was great fun, particularly activity related days when we built models of bridges, shelters, and water systems etc. sometimes based on a theme such as emergency response for disaster relief. We have even built bridges with children, big enough for them to walk across.

I’ve taken part in events aimed at everyone from toddlers (the jelly got everywhere!), to university students. I’ve even given a talk for a group of pensioners.

As time has gone on, and I have engaged with a wide variety of schools, I have realised that opening the eyes of the children to the opportunities that exist for civil engineers isn’t just important for the industry, it is important for the children too. Some children don’t have any role models to inspire them to think about what they could be, what they could achieve, what an amazing career they could have. Others may be aware of the career but think it isn’t open to them because of either pre-conceived ideas about what engineers do, or worries about their academic ability, or financial worries because they can’t afford full time education or even messages still being sent by society.

Believe it or not, I have had experience of a girl at a careers fair saying “I quite fancy engineering but my mum said it’s not a job for a girl”. I also arranged a bridge building event during which a teacher told my colleague, he was only planning sending the boys since it was an engineering event! As a female engineer, I was stunned.

As for the other concerns, there are many routes into engineering, suitable for a range of academic abilities and social circumstances. So, I make sure the children know the options to open to them.

There are lots of inequalities and pre-conceptions acting as a barrier to entering engineering. My job as a STEM Ambassador is to break down those barriers and inspire the children while making engineering fun along the way.

Why do I do it? I do it for the future of the children, the future of my industry and the future of society as a whole, who rely on skilled engineers to develop and protect the world we live in. But most of all I do it for the look on the children’s faces when they suddenly have a great idea or they achieve something they never thought possible.

Could you be the next ICE Scotland STEM Ambassador of the Year? This award honours an individual who has shown outstanding commitment to civil engineering by giving their time to inspire the next generation of civil engineers on behalf of ICE.

For more information email [email protected]

Frances Ratcliffe is a Chartered Civil Engineer and the Lead Consultant for Bridges & Structures in Fife Council’s Roads & Transportation Services. She is a former Chair of ICE Scotland and ICE Scotland’s STEM Ambassador of the Year 2019.

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