Cork youth worker says engineering is for everyone

As STEPS Engineers Week takes place, Nicola Depuis finds out more about the event and the need for more engineers from Foróige’s Sonya Matthews
Cork youth worker says engineering is for everyone

Sonya believes that there are many transferable skills you can reapply from engineering to life.

STEPS Engineers Week is taking place all over Ireland this week until Friday. It is Ireland’s biggest celebration of engineering in the community, and one that Sonya Matthews from the Knocknaheeny based Foróige in Cork is passionate about.

“I’m very passionate about engineering and technology. I have been since I was very young,” says Sonya, who has a degree in Applied Physics, Mathematics, and Instrumentation.

These days, she combines her love of engineering with her love of working with young people as Foróige’s Programme Officer of YES - Youth Engineering Solutions.

“I like using my skills as a worker and engineer to bring it to life for young people in an easy way, in an approachable way, in a non-threatening or scary way,” said Sonya. “And to make young people realise that they can do anything if they just apply themselves.”

Sonya believes that there are many transferable skills you can reapply from engineering to life.

“Analytical thinking, attention to detail, creativity, IT skills, logical thinking, computational thinking, numeracy, project management, research skills, teamwork. The list goes on.”

But the one that she really enjoys watching young people work through is their problem-solving skills.

“During a workshop you often see them looking at an activity that isn’t working. And they will go away, think about it, redesign it, rebuild it, and come back and test it again for us. And they are just thrilled when it works. So, it’s a brilliant opportunity for young people to learn to try things out, and not to give up.

Work in progress in creating a lander at the East Cork Youth Reach project.
Work in progress in creating a lander at the East Cork Youth Reach project.

“Engineering is problem-solving. An engineer looks at the world around them and uses science and technology to solve problems.”

The aim of Engineers Week, which is now in its 16th year, is to promote engineering to the young people of Ireland and for young people to experience the many disciplines of engineering as fun, creative and interesting.

“So young people can see that engineers build rollercoasters, they design cars and rockets, and loads of other things. An engineer will never be bored.”

Why is it important to get young people interested in engineering, I ask?

“Ireland simply excels at engineering,” answers Sonya.

“But there are a lack of engineers working in Ireland. We need to be at least doubling the number of engineering apprenticeships and graduates each year here to keep up with demand.”

It’s not something we think about often, but we’re surrounded by the ingenious products of engineers – from roads, dams, buildings and airports to spacecraft, satellites, prosthetics, diagnostic devices, and smartphones.

“The 21st century is driven by developments in engineering and technology,” says Sonya.

“We’re all surrounded by technology - from our smartphones and tablets to electric cars and wind turbines from renewable energy. And in a mere 25 years, the Internet has become a central part of our lives. It is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, and it’s an employee’s paradise.”

A robotic hand created at Togher Youth Project.
A robotic hand created at Togher Youth Project.

Foroige’s YES Programme is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and hopes to bring engineering to life for young people between the ages of 10 and 18. Part of the YES programme focuses directly on girls, and the misconceptions about engineering being a subject for ‘boys’ only, or for ‘clever people’.

“There is still huge inequality in the field. A lot of young women believe that engineering isn’t for them because they’re not exposed to it in school, so they don’t think that it’s an option.” 

To counter this, one of the events coming up as part of STEM Engineers Week is a Speed Mentoring event. “This is a wonderful opportunity for younger students to meet the wonderful engineering students of MTU, and to ask questions about the different disciplines of engineering, and what studying in MTU is like,” says Sonya.

There are also videos on the YES YouTube channel showing Sonya interviewing female engineers including Civil Engineer, Rachel Gannon and MTU Lecturer and Civil Engineer, Dr. Mary Moloney.

Some of the other events include a Crane Building Workshop, a Merry Go Round Building Workshop, a show called A Rough Guide to Engineering, a day of exploring Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Invention in schools called Engenius Day, and an Architectural & Structural Engineering Workshop.

Kits exploring different disciplines of engineering were also sent out to projects, clubs, and schools.

This week, approximately 900 young people will build and explore these activities.

Sonya is hopeful that the workshops held during STEPS Engineers Week, and the YES programme of yearlong events will attract a lot of younger people to a life in engineering.

“There is so much diverse work out there in engineering, and engineers really can pick and choose where they want to go in the world. So, it’s a wonderful career for a young person to have.”

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