“I was excited to help local students to get involved with STEM"​: Graduate Richard Cowan discusses STFC’s Engineering Experience Programme
28 Mar 2023







STFC’s Engineering Experience Programme (EEP) provides year 12 students with a taste of what working as an engineer is really like. Local schools can sign up directly with our public engagement (PE) team and provide their students with a vital opportunity to get involved in STEM. 

Richard, our EEP mentor
​In the programme, students work together on an engineering project designed by their assigned early career mentors. They are supported to investigate the challenge, develop a solution, produce a report, and give a final group presentation.

The programme is also an important opportunity in STFC's Early Career Engagement Programme which provides our apprentices and graduates with a chance to participate in (PE) activities.

The EEP was designed by Zoë Clark (a member of STFC's ISIS team) during her graduate placement with RAL PE. Zoë also ran the programme in its pilot year which, despite being hit by COVID and being run virtually, was very successful.

In its first year, the programme was attended by two schools, including one Wonder School. A Wonder School meets the criteria of STFC's Wonder Initiative​, which aims to improve our engagement with schools and communities in the 40% most deprived areas of the country. 

Students were also brought on-site at RAL at the end of the programme for a celebration event and to get first-hand experience of where their projects could be used.

The outcomes of the programme have been very positive so far– with students rating their skill levels after getting involved with the EEP as significantly higher in everything from problem-solving to teamwork. One participant said:

“Overall, this experience has been amazing and very informative. This has made me want to pursue a career in engineering. It’s been a fascinating journey which has helped me become better at working with people and being responsible.” 

Both original pilot schools returned for the second year of the programme and were joined by three new schools. This year’s programme, run by one of its first-year mentors Callum McDonnell, will soon be completed with students and mentors celebrating their involvement at the EEP celebration event tomorrow

At the end of the EEP’s first year, we caught up with Richard Cowan, a member of the Technology Department and one of the programme’s mentors, to discuss his experiences. Read more below.

What made you want to sign up for the Engineering Experience Programme?

When I was fourteen, I completed a programme very similar to the EEP. I really enjoyed it, and the experience helped me to understand more about what working as an engineer is like and what kind of challenges engineers solve. I was excited to help local students get involved with STEM and engineering and to introduce them to some of the interesting projects we work on at RAL.

Can you tell me more about your role at STFC?

I started working at STFC in August 2021 after graduating with a master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Bristol University. I work in the Technology Department as a part of the High-Power Targets group which is involved with the design and analysis of particle beam targets for STFC and external clients. However, I mostly work alongside the Department’s Energy Research Unit, studying renewable fuels such as ammonia.

Can you tell me more about your role in the programme?

I was one in a group of three programme mentors. At the start of the project, we gave our students their scenario - they were managing a vacuum chamber’s refurbishment. As a part of the brief, they had to design a stand for a specific 8U-cubesat satellite and pick a pump to maintain the vacuum chamber. In addition to this design challenge, they had to analyse and calculate how fast the chamber was pumped down to the required pressure.

A lot of our time on the programme was spent mentoring and guiding the students through the brief and its scientific concepts. We helped them with their engineering questions and guided them through the maths equations they might need to solve the problems we set. We also introduced them to project management and structures like Gantt charts, which helped them to organise each other and track the progress of the project.

During the project, there was a learning curve on both sides. We [as mentors] had to learn what educational level the students were at school and what challenges fit that requirement. They excelled at the design challenge but needed a little more support and guidance with the mathematical side of the project. 

How did you find the final presentations?

The final presentation was an overview of their whole project and described all the work they’d put in over the 19 weeks. The students presented virtually from their school with a green screen and a model of their satellite which demonstrated how their project evolved over time. I am very proud of the work that they put into the project. Staff members from all over STFC were present to judge and give feedback, and I think they were very impressed.

What was the best thing about the programme?

It was very cool to see the students grow over the course of the programme and expand their knowledge relating to vacuum science. I think they left with a much deeper level of understanding compared to other kids of their age. I enjoyed seeing how engaged they were with the project – progressing from being slightly overwhelmed at the beginning to very confident in presenting detailed information.

What would you say to someone interested in joining the programme as a mentor or mentee?

As a mentor, I would really recommend getting involved in the programme as it is a very rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to get students interested in STEM while also gaining leadership and mentoring experience.

​My top tip for choosing a project would be to discuss it with their teacher to make sure the problems meet their education level and align with their skills.

To the students thinking of getting involved, I would absolutely encourage them. As I mentioned, I got involved with a similar project as a teenager and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In addition to developing your scientific and mathematical knowledge, you can learn to work as a team and delegate tasks. It also provides you with the opportunity to develop an interest in engineering and see if it is something you would like to do in the future. 

Written by Cat Lewin-Williams and Richard Cowan.