How City of Glasgow College is changing the face of engineering

Laura Phillips and Bunmi Onanuga. Picture: City of Glasgow College/Marc Turner

Laura Phillips is preparing for university where she aims to study mechanical engineering – with an eye to working in Scotland’s growing space industry. But her interest extends to software engineering, as she would also like to build apps. “As well as this I would like to inspire others to pursue their goals and show that it is possible to create a better future at any point in your life,” she said.

Laura is a pioneer; she is nearing the end of her HND in mechanical engineering at City of Glasgow College after completing her HNC last year, on Scotland’s first women-only engineering course – part of a wider effort by the college and partners to address the stark gender inequality that exists in the science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) professions.

She had been at a crossroads in her working life: “When I returned to academia, I was a little apprehensive as I had been a working in insurance for quite some time. But by taking the step to enroll, I was making a commitment to ensure positive career developments in my future. From then I have never looked back; gaining an A in my HNC has given me the confidence and self-belief to truly thrive academically and professionally.”

Laura has also completed a work placement with an offshore renewable energy research centre for wind, wave and tidal energy. She has become an executive member of the Scottish Association for Engineering Education and a ‘primary engineer’ working alongside children as they undertake STEM projects at school. Ultimately, Laura has her sights set on working in the space sector.

“In today’s world, the engineer and technological expert will play a more vital role than ever before,” said Laura. “Emerging technologies, from blockchain to robotics, will start to shape our daily lives. The world will need experts to create and navigate the pathway and bridge the gap for every-one to have access to these incredible technologies.

“The only advice I would give to other women would be, to take the first step.  You don’t know what you are capable of until you challenge yourself.  If you stay in your comfort zone nothing will ever change.  The journey may not always be easy; however, the satisfaction of achieving what you set out to do is worth any short-term sacrifices.”

Celebrating Scottish Apprenticeship Week & International Women’s Day

City of Glasgow College works with around 1,500 large and small employers to support employability and prosperity for its students from 130 different nationalities. Lecturers themselves encourage and motivate and are passionate about improving the gender imbalance in their classrooms. Carol Murray, Director of Building, Engineering & Energy – and the first female engineer at Rolls Royce – has brought that expertise and experience to the college and she was integral to the introduction of the pioneering women-into-engineering classes.

“I know first-hand how tough it can be but I think we all agree that more women need to be encouraged into the sector,” she said. “STEM education creates critical thinkers and enables the next generation of innovators so anything we can do to encourage women, no matter their age or background, is very important.”

Laura’s fellow student, Bunmi Onanuga had also returned to education – after 15 years raising a family and working in administrative and personnel roles: “The job satisfaction factor was missing,” she said. “I was enthused about enrolling in an all-female class; I believed I would be able to build relationships quickly and easily. Also, I had a feeling that I might find it easier to ask for help from my classmates and support from lecturers.”

The HNC was her introduction to mechanical engineering, with subjects underpinned by physics and maths: “These got my brain engaged. Engineering drawing with computer aided design (CAD) software was an interesting one. Initially, I found it challenging, but with frequent use I gained confidence.” Last summer, Bunmi secured a work placement with a Glasgow-based construction company, following an interview arranged by the college and Equate Scotland, the organisation working to increase the number of women in science, engineering, technology and the built environment.

“The industry experience was an eye opener for me,” said Bunmi. “It enhanced my resolve to remain in education and I started on the HND course after the placement. The HND class is mixed, gender wise; representative of the work place. But I believe that the HNC all-female class was a confidence building frame for me.”

After completing her HND, Bunmi is planning to study mechanical electronic systems engineering at university, and then work in the construction, science or technology industries. She is also aiming to become a chartered engineer. “My advice to women aspiring to be engineers,” says Bunmi, “is sign up for the course and you will be fine. It may require a bit of hard work, but it is very rewarding when you put in the hours. There is no better time to start than now.”

As well as preparing for the final stage of their HND, and applying to universities, Bunmi and Laura were asked by Skills Development Scotland to devise a web application in the form of a STEM equality game aimed at raising awareness of equality issues in the sector. It has led to an invitation to submit a final stage abstract to the Vocational Training Council’s annual International STEM Students Forum. Their submission, on the impact of ‘serious and persuasive games’ in engaging students with equality issues, is now being considered for inclusion at the forum in Hong Kong.

City of Glasgow College’s women-only initiative is cited as a pivotal case study within the Scottish Government’s ‘Developing Scotland’s Young Work-force’ plans and features in a recent Higher Education Academy research paper. Alongside Equate Scotland and employer groups, the college recently launched a best practice guide for employers which offers solutions that could make a real difference within the STEM sector.

The partnership with Equate Scotland to promote gender equality in the engineering sector complements the work the college does with a range of partners to promote opportunities for women interested in careers in the construction and engineering sectors. Faculty statistics show an increase in female participation in construction trade occupations from 10.8% in 2014/15 to 14.9% in 2015/16, compared with an industry average of only 2%.

“We have realised a world-leading technical and professional college which is redefining the essence of college education in the UK and beyond,” said Paul Little, City of Glasgow College’s principal and chief executive, “where individual students matter more than the subject and where personalised learning flourishes through our watch words of inspiration, excellence and innovation.

“Our success speaks for itself through courses such as our pioneering women-into-engineering – the first of their kind in Scotland. They have been widely welcomed by industry and resulted in a significant increase in enrolments, work placements and public awareness of the gender imbalance across the sector.”

“Ultimately, we aim to create an essential talent pipeline from education to employment. Developing it in such an exciting way will no doubt continue to increase the number of students from all backgrounds who are attracted to STEM professions and deliver real change for the better.”

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