Explaining chemical engineering to a unicorn, trainee Jedi knights, and a caveman's little helper
OUTREACH programmes such as whynotchemeng and 2018’s Year of Engineering are promoting chemical engineering in schools and academic events. But what happens when we try to enlighten the festival-going unwashed?
On the basis that starting work at your first proper job is the start of your engineering career, I can say with some conviction that I have been a chemical engineer since joining BASF in September 2005. You’d think that in the following 13 years, and experience within the coatings, brewing, FMCG, research, water, pharma and chemicals industries, I’d be able to come up with a good answer to the recurring question: "So, what is a chemical engineer then?’"
Those 13 years may seem a long time to me, but to the wider audience that’s probably barely a hiccup, so I thought I’d put this article forward to the vociferous masses reading The Chemical Engineer. What’s your best answer to the question? Here are mine:
There’s my perennial response to the layman - "I design and improve factories"
For two years down in London it was – "I made the Budweiser you’re drinking"
The facetious answer to my mates – "I mess around with Excel all day"
To my wife’s doctor friends, I get specific – "I made Zoladex and cephalosporins"
And to my daft brother-in-law – "If you poop in the Lake District, I helped design the sewage works’"
Much quoted and mis-quoted, I find I agree with the tenet: "If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough," and always thought I had a good handle on how to describe our chosen vocation. I even thought I could tailor my response to pretty much anyone. That is I thought I did, until this summer when IChemE's Manchester Members Group presented at the BlueDot music and science festival at Jodrell Bank.
For those who are not aware, the BlueDot festival is a partnership between the Jodrell Bank team of the University of Manchester, UK, and an events company. They’ve combined to put on shows since 2012 and an annual festival since 2016, with BlueDot a particularly family-friendly event underneath the magnificent Lovell telescope.
I was a punter for the first two years and, greatly enjoying the daytime science talks and late night music, I secured a place for the Manchester Group to participate. Our theme was (loosely) Chemical Engineering in your Kitchen and we demonstrated the principles of fluidisation through hot-air popcorn making, polymerisation, and non-Newtonian flow with Slime (big hit with the kids), filtration with sponges and t-shirts, and used plastic bottles and household liquids to explain density and immiscible fluids. All of this was an attempt to show how the science is all around, and then explain how we use those principles in industrial-scale processes.
A team of 12 working engineers and students manned our stand over the weekend and, sandwiched between robotic puppies, a Jedi lightsaber training school and the caveman version of Sainsbury’s, we faced the crowds. The team was a good mix of academics and industry types, with a breadth of experience so we could always try to field a question. Surprisingly we were a big hit; expecting only 1,000 visits a day, our supplies ran out in the afternoon of the first day. Cue last-minute visits to Hobbycraft by the team en route for Saturday morning to save the day.
There is a challenge in presenting to children whilst being watched by a particularly science-savvy set of parents. The wandering scientists waiting for their turn to present, side by side with fancy-dress aliens and the full animal cast of Blue Planet is one I certainly won’t forget. If you doubt that, then try simultaneously explaining polymerisation to a six-year old; the dangers of buying unregulated chemical compounds to a parent (don’t buy pre-made slime online if the boron content is very high); the biodegradable nature of PVA glue to a passing towns planner; and the ‘miracle’ of hot air producing popcorn to a 30-ish-year old man wearing a particularly skimpy unicorn outfit. I really wish someone had photographed that moment, as I was covered in (biodegradeable) glitter, trying to explain how EU safety limits protect consumers whilst doing a massive double take at a gentleman who probably hadn’t been to sleep for 72 hours.
It continued to get weirder as we were joined by the Jedi lightsaber class, the RoboPuppy, and the Caveman Sainsbury’s team in their furs. This happened just as I became covered with a particularly sticky batch of glitter slime and the popcorn machine was shooting kernels two feet into the air – I tried to give a universal answer to what is a chemical engineer to that group – and possibly failed. Are we scientists who make things on an industrial scale? Are we engineers who translate the high-falutin’ science into digestible blocks? Was I just a wannabe Blue Peter presenter there to keep the kids entertained? I settled on this – chemical engineers listen to the bright ideas all over the world, and then use them to make our lives better. That question has niggled at me since, and I’m eager to hear how my fellow engineers think I should’ve answered it but we certainly had a lot of laughs over the weekend.
All of this is a long handed way of saying that, whilst I think the schools outreach programmes are great, we should all try to take the opportunity to explain what we do to a new audience. Yes a lot of us may end up spending a few hours every day on spreadsheets, but it is worth reminding the public of the everyday successes brought to them through the efforts of chemical engineers around the world. I’m not going to suggest that some of the visitors to our stand suddenly saw a light and announced that chemical engineering is their future – but I’m certain a fair few of them now have a better idea of how chemical engineering impacts their lives, and maybe some of the teenagers will look over a course prospectus one more time.
So please contact me (email@example.com) and let me know – confronted with a six-year old Jedi, a cavegirl in her early teens and a unicorn who really should know better, how would you explain chemical engineering?
Thanks need to be given to the volunteers who adapted wonderfully to new challenges each day and allowed us all to enjoy lots of laughs over the weekend. The volunteers were: Martin Hyde (Manchester Members Group chair); Shantell Richards (Manchester Members Group committee); Anastasiya Belova; Angela McCann; Nainash Chevli; Greg Hull; Jhud Aberilla; Mike McCormick; Stephanie Cunliffe; Perpetual Idehen; Daniel Niblett; and Andrew James Blair.
Meanwhile, apologies need to be given to: