PICTURE an engineer and you may well imagine a white, university-educated man in a hard hat with a roll of blueprints under his arm.
The Inventive Podcast aims to flip these conceptions by highlighting inspirational and influential engineers who don’t fit this constricted, outdated mould.
Host Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at the University of Salford, UK, chats with a different guest in each episode before asking a writer to come up with an original story inspired by those conversations. That makes the podcast itself an innovation of sorts, in that it marries fact and fiction to demonstrate there is far more to engineering than people might think.
It is a welcome addition considering the lack of diversity and uptake that still plagues engineering. In the UK, only 12 per cent of engineers are women, and 186,000 new engineers are needed each year until 2024 to make up for the country’s skills shortfall in the profession.
Reassuringly, the podcast’s first three episodes feature women, the first of whom is electronics engineer and activist Shrouk El-Attar. Part of her day job involves designing and developing technologies for women’s health, including silent breast pumps and a pelvic floor trainer. El-Attar also performs as a belly-dancing drag king by night to challenge societal conventions and raise money for the LGBTQ+ community.
As a woman and asylum seeker from Egypt, El-Attar knows first-hand how being denied opportunities, such as going to university, can cause engineering to suffer – not only by being less diverse, but also at the expense of innovation. “How many amazing, creative technologies are we missing out on today as a society because we’re telling these people with the amazing ideas that they don’t belong here?” she asks.
In response to El-Attar’s work and her account of being inspired into engineering by the “magic” people living inside her TV as a child, writer Tania Hershman incorporates poetry to create a thought-provoking story that reflects El-Attar’s life. It uses the idea of a human being as a circuit board and emphasises the importance of language.
In the second episode, Cox meets Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer who was part of the team that designed The Shard, one of London’s most iconic landmarks. Agrawal also wrote the book Built: The hidden stories behind our structures. She did so to encourage people to become engineers by showing that it is “so utterly an intrinsic part of humans and the way we’ve lived right from the beginning”, she tells Cox.
“ShroukEl-Attar also performs as a belly-dancing drag king by night to challenge societal conventions”
The accompanying story by C. M. Taylor draws on Agrawal’s self-confessed love for concrete (“I have been known to stroke concrete – I love feeling it!”), as a mysterious figure known as the Night Builder begins to secretly create colossal concrete structures in cities.
Cox’s third guest is aerospace engineer Sophie Robinson, who works on a type of drone-inspired aircraft called eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing), with the idea of developing widely accessible air taxis that cut road congestion and carbon emissions.
Robinson is also an avid swimmer, having once swam across the English Channel, a fact that is at the centre of novelist Tony White’s story about an engineer who grapples with the ethical dilemmas of her job while on a cold water swimming trip.
As you would expect from the experience of the personnel, the podcast is built on strong foundations. Cox asks perceptive questions that get to the heart of what it means to be an engineer, as well as helping to flesh out the details of the work itself, while each writer’s take on the interviews adds an interesting and different element to the show.
The guests’ enthusiasm is also infectious. “Being an engineer is my superpower,” replies El-Attar, when Cox asks her which superpower she would like. “I hope people see that and that it can be your superpower too.”
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