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Department of Engineering

School and community outreach

School and community outreach

Lessons in entrepreneurial design


Several alumni of the Department of Engineering have found success through the Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) double masters programme, a jointly run venture of the Royal College of Art (RCA) and Imperial College London (ICL).

In operation for more than 35 years, the IDE programme takes students on a curriculum spanning experimentation, design, engineering and enterprise activities.

“We explore and help postgraduate students develop their skills in a wide range of functional attributes from technical aspects, to aesthetic, economic, social, psychological, emergent and latent,” explained Peter Childs, head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at ICL and a joint course director in the Innovation Design Engineering programme. “One of our tasks in Innovation Design Engineering is to help identify routes for the postgraduate students to access advanced engineering resources and insights from engineering analysis that can inform their designs to the state of the art.”

“The result,” said Dr Dominic Southgate, senior teaching fellow at the Dyson School of Design Engineering, “is students who excel at exploring novel applications for emerging technologies but with the ability to really understand user needs when creating new products and systems.”

Ollie Price
University of Cambridge, MA Engineering, 1992
MDes 1994

Founder, Opid

I have always loved making things and understanding how things work and are made. Armed with a limited range of A-level subjects, and consequently an even more limited choice of degree options, Engineering seemed like the course which was most rooted in the material world. Though I had little idea of what sort of engineer I might want to be, Engineering at the University of Cambridge allowed me to start general and become specific. Of course the architecture and the punting were appealing too.

At a meeting with the University Careers Service, I learnt about the Innovation Design Engineering course, which seemed like the perfect way to spend two years being introduced to a career of making real things. Initially, engineering was put to one side in favour of life-drawing, sketching and thinking more broadly about how people use and relate to physical objects. It was only later on, as we started to design products, that I realised how useful some of the Cambridge-taught theory might be, supporting the design process rather than as a starting point. At Cambridge, I felt that there was a gulf between arts and science subjects.

The IDE course opened my eyes to the existence of design as an industrial activity, incorporating creative inspiration, real-life experience, and analytical method. I have been working as a product designer ever since, frequently alongside other graduates of the RCA design school. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I owe my career to the IDE course.

It’s always great to work on products which could have a real tangible benefit to people, so medical instruments are an obvious answer, but in fact the most interesting aspect of innovation for me is when I am confronted by a new problem in an unfamiliar field. It’s exciting to grapple with and understand the requirements of a group of people, area of human endeavour, ‘market need’, or technical problem that I had never known existed.

My recent work has included a business-class aircraft seat, a chiller to allow small shops to sell chocolate in developing countries, and a surgical instrument to perform a specific procedure for the treatment of bowel cancers. In my work I collaborate with specialists from materials scientists and electronics engineers to textile designers and illustrators, and also with model makers and manufacturers of all sorts. The breadth of the Cambridge/RCA education helps me to communicate with, appreciate and have productive relationships with them all.

Michael Korn
University of Cambridge, MEng Manufacturing Engineering, 2004
MA 2007

Director, KwickScreen

I always wanted to make things; I liked maths and physics; and I wanted to work with my hands. Cambridge was the best and most prestigious place to study engineering. There was variety in how you could learn. I wanted to be in Cambridge – my siblings went there and my grandma lived there.

At Cambridge, I first learnt engineering – how things work, how to work hard and succeed at seemingly impossible amounts of work. In the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos, I learnt about business and manufacturing, how things are made and how to make them better.

Then a visiting talk about IDE opened my eyes to a different way of learning. I visited the course a few times and I loved the creative, experimental and free environment. The IDE course liberated me as an engineer. It helped bridge the gap between scientist and inventor. I liked the blend of the theoretical and practical worlds of engineering, design and entrepreneurship. Products that can become scalable businesses. Simple innovations that solve problems and have got what it takes to succeed commercially.

In the IDE programme, I had the environment to experiment and learn entrepreneurial and innovative design skills. It gave me the ability and self-confidence to work for myself.

KwickScreen was my final year project. I've been working on it since then. It is now sold worldwide and has been adopted by over 150 NHS trusts. I would not have come up with the idea without having had the time at the RCA to experiment.

Robin Sayer
​University of Cambridge, MA Mechanical Engineering, 1990
MDesEng 1992
Head of Mechanical Engineering
Department of Clinical Physics and Bioengineering
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde

I first got into engineering when my art teacher suggested a career in product design as an outlet for my technical, creative and artistic skills. I thought that grounding in engineering would be a good foundation and had a vague idea that I’d try and specialise later. The course at Cambridge had and still has an excellent reputation.

After graduation, I wasn’t ready to give up full-time education. The RCA/ICL course was exactly what I was looking for. Fortunately it didn’t matter that my drawing skills were a bit rusty; as it turned out, the course leaders were more interested in my innovation potential.

Where Cambridge engineering was more analytical, in the IDE focus was more user-centred and required an in-depth understanding of how products are actually manufactured. It gave me the skills and confidence to combine product design and engineering mind-sets. There’s often a tension between these two areas and it’s incredibly useful to have a working understanding of both, especially when managing the new product development process. I’ve applied these disciplines in the manufacturing industry, design consultancy and now in the public sector.

My time at Cambridge and in the IDE were both immensely enjoyable. The RCA design studio atmosphere encourages a collaborative approach and it’s an incredibly stimulating environment. My education has fostered an inquiring mind that questions established ways of doing things. This mindset is key to new device innovation.

Today, I am most interested in medical device technologies that have the potential to disrupt current ways of treating patients. I’m part of a multi-disciplinary team developing new medical technologies for the NHS in Scotland. It’s highly varied and can be anything from a phone accessory and/or app to a new way of utilising 3D printers to improve surgical planning.

Aran Dasan
MEng 2010
Director of sustainable food startup Ento
Technical developer at Illuminarium
Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London

I chose to go into engineering to get closer to the interface between exciting emerging technologies and the people that could benefit from them. Using technology to answer some of the greatest questions facing our society was an exciting prospect! The University of Cambridge was particularly appealing because of its reputation and the quality of teaching.

At some point I came to the realisation that engineering knowledge was not enough to answer some of the more pressing needs of society. Design has been and will always be a great skill and body of knowledge that complements the practice of engineering. The Innovation Design Engineering programme was a clear beacon of the fusion of the two disciplines. It showed how engineering can be fused into other disciplines be they design, agriculture, computer science, biology or economics. Through the course I learnt how engineering can be a connector and enabler across many fields – from future-scoping to agriculture, satellites, food security, human-centered design, road infrastructure, open-source technology, pedagogy, sustainable energy, and artificial intelligence.

Eventually the course proved instrumental to my career, introducing me to the idea of developing my own design and engineering practice. I’ve turned that practice into my own freelance studio, doing design for innovative startup companies in the sustainability sector. I also frequently work with artists to help them with technically challenging art installations and I have become a tutor for IDE as well.

Cambridge gave me the technical skills and capability to enter a new domain and rapidly learn what I needed to excel there. The IDE programme expanded my awareness of what a designer and engineer could do.

Wai-chuen Cheung
Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, MEng 2013
Royal College of Art/Imperial College, MA/MSc 2015
Founder of Metadrift

I decided to go into engineering because of its breadth and diversity as a subject. Interesting problems lie across multiple domains, and the principles that you learn from general engineering courses are easily transferred to new situations. The University of Cambridge’s world class academic reputation made it a clear choice for my undergraduate studies. What was not known to me at the time was how the collegiate system gives a wonderfully unique experience of being at university. Being part of the close-knit community within Queens’ College was my favourite part of my time at Cambridge.

After graduating from the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (MET), I wanted to put my engineering knowledge into practice in a more creative, hands-on environment. RCA and IDE gave me an understanding of the design context of engineering – how technical expertise can be blended with design thinking in order to create effective, well implemented and aesthetic projects. For me, engineering cannot exist within a vacuum of mere theoretical considerations, and similarly design cannot exist without technical grounding and resolution, and it was through IDE that the two worlds were brought together. The nature of the programme granted me two years of intellectual freedom to pursue any interesting problem that caught my attention.

My current research interest focuses on our behaviour and relationship towards digital technologies and how it impacts our lives. I find that this area is a really interesting intersection of design and engineering that requires consideration of both sides. I have formed a startup that is bringing my graduation project ‘Metadrift’ to market. It’s something that will bring its own new challenges, but I’m confident that my time at both the University of Cambridge and IDE has given me great preparation for the diverse demands of the future.

From Tripos to TripAdvisor

Since leaving the Department of Engineering, Alumna Lily Cheng has had a whirlwind career that now boasts President, APAC, at TripAdvisor. 

An engineering mindset, combined with analytical and data manipulation ability, combined with outward-facing skills to pitch ideas in a business context and secure resources are all very key.

Lily Cheng

TripAdvisor is one of the world's largest travel websites. Lily leads the company’s growth in the Asia-Pacific region with a focus on China, India and Japan . Since joining the corporation in 2010 as senior director of strategy and business development in the APAC region, Lily has been instrumental in establishing TripAdvisor’s offices in Singapore and Beijing.

Raised in Hong Kong, Lily became interested in computers and technology at a young age. She found herself in the back streets of the city, collecting various electronic components and assembling them into small gadgets. “It was like an entire street with all the parts you would find in an RS or Farnell catalog laid out in little plastic bins,” she said. “It was my version of a candy store.”

Becoming an engineering student was a natural progression for Lily. “I really love the feeling of being able to make something. I wanted to be an inventor.” She considered industrial design but in the end decided on a more technical track. “It was considered a ‘safe bet’ in Chinese society, which was an influencing factor.”

During her time at Cambridge, Lily was exposed to a wide variety of disciplines, including mechanics, electronics, thermodynamics and structures. In the end, she pursued the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos (MET). “I was particularly interested in the intersection of engineering and business,” Lily said. “The program exposed us not only to engineering skills but skills that are very important in the business world, like accounting and public speaking.”

Studying under Department of Engineering lecturers such as Dr Hugh Hunt, Professor Sir Mike Gregory and Professor Cam Middleton, Lily honed skills that are highly sought in the internet economy. “An engineering mindset, combined with analytical and data manipulation ability, combined with outward-facing skills to pitch ideas in a business context and secure resources are all very key,” Lily said. “Graduates from the MET program develop a unique combination of these skills and the ability to traverse the intersection of these disciplines in a way that’s very valuable to business.”

“Regardless of whether you are in a start-up or in a global internet company like TripAdvisor, being able to bridge comfortably between technology and business  is important when you are trying to secure financial resources for your ideas,” Lily said. “Graduates from Cambridge Engineering are often able to pull things out of the bag that breaks conventional stereotypes of what engineers can do.

In my current role at TripAdvisor, I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to be involved in many different disciplines of the organisation.  One day, I might have a conversation with our engineering leaders about how we can optimise the architecture of our code base. The next day, I might meet with political leaders in different countries to explore how TripAdvisor can be a platform to grow their economies through the promotion of tourism. The next day, I might sit in a usability study watching users from different countries trying to search for information on our app to understand the areas of friction.”

TripAdvisor’s founder and CEO Stephen Kaufer, Lily noted, is an engineer and approaches work through a hypothesis and data-driven approach. “The logic and analytical skills that an engineering foundation develops is critical to our everyday work.”

Summer School

A group of Year 11 students from the London area descended on the Engineering Department in July to take part in a summer school activity.

The summer school, funded by HEFCE, is designed to give students a flavour of life at Cambridge, and we hope some of them will consider applying to study engineering as a result.

Ten teams were each challenged to build a new Millennium Bridge to cross the Thames, using a single span design. The only materials they were given were cardboard, paper, string, nuts and bolts and tape.

Half an hour was allowed for design, and an hour and a half for construction.

The inventiveness was a joy to behold as the bridges were all tested to find the maximum weight they could support. Each model bridge was also weighed to judge efficient use of materials, and marks were awarded for aesthetic appeal.

The session was rounded off by a chance to experience the wobbles of the original Millennium Bridge design on the scale model built by Allan McRobie, lecturer in structural mechanics, in the Structures lab.

Engineering events in National Science Week

Many members of CUED are actively supporting Cambridge University's National Science Week this year:

Professor Roberto Cipolla is lecturing to school children (Key Stage 3/4) on the topic "Machines that see" as part of the Schools Roadshow;

Professor Mark Welland is lecturing on "The Nanoworld" at the Cavendish Laboratory, Madingley Road at 2.30 pm on Saturday 23rd March.

Dr PeterLong is co-ordinating two hands-on activities for the first Saturday, 16th March, 10am -4pm:

  • 'Whizzy Windmills' in which children are invited to design and build propellors which will either be tested as to speed or efficiency in producing electricity, and;
  • 'Boat Race Challenge' in which participants are given a kit from which to build a boat (using an electric motor and propellor) and then race it.

In addition to these activities, over 300 children will be visiting the Department in the following week (18 - 22 March inclusive),to attend an event co-ordinated by Doug Isgrove with SATRO :

"Project Launch Pad"

for Key Stage 2 (aged 7-11) pupils, when around 300 children will visit the Department to find out about what engineers do and take part in various engineering related activities, including building a rocket. A description of the project can be seen at:

Virtual Open Day

A 'virtual open day' has been created on the Department's web site to allow potential students who are unable to attend the actual event to get a flavour of the action.

This site includes panoramic shots of the laboratories and movie clips of some of the demonstrations in action. Of particular value are the two lectures on admissions and the courses offered by the Department given by Dr Geoff Parks, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions. These two lectures can be viewed as streaming video for those with a broadband internet connection, or as slides with audio for modem access.

The 'virtual Open Day' has been developed by the Department's multimedia group, from an original idea by Geoff Parks, who comments:

" We hope that some of our enthusiasm and excitement is transmitted to those who cannot come to either of our two Open Days, and also that those who are coming will be able to use the information provided to plan their day more efficiently and see the events most relevant to their own interests."

The Department Open Days were held on Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th July this year. For details, go to the Open Day website.

Sutton Trust Summer School

Some 140 Year 12 students from maintained schools and colleges from across the UK will be attending summer schools at Cambridge University in July.

Participants attend courses in a particular subject area (Biology, Economics, Engineering, Physics, English, Law or Mathematics) to gain a taste of first year university level study. They stay in a College and enjoy a range of social activities.

The Engineering Department will be hosting those students who choose Engineering as their preferred subject area. Activities include building a robot, stripping an engine and breaking steel at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The students will also experience typical first year lectures and a supervision based on two of these lectures.

The event is sponsored by the Sutton Trust, which was founded in 1997 by Sir Peter Lampl, with the aim of providing educational opportunities for able young people from non-privileged backgrounds.

A similar scheme for students with strong academic records is offered by the Royal Academy of Engineering, each summer. CUED also hosts around thirty-six such students each year, on the Headstart scheme, so that they can experience what it would be like to study for a degree in Engineering at Cambridge.

Project launch pad

Around 200 children will be visiting the Department this week to attend an event as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

Organised by SATRO, "Project Launch Pad" is an activity for Key Stage 2 (aged 7-11) pupils, to help them find out what engineers do and take part in various engineering related activities, including building a rocket.

The children from a variety of local schools are challenged to design and build a rocket and a launch pad. The Rockets are then launched out on the fen, behind the Department of Engineering. The construction is carried out in the Structures laboratory of the Department of Engineering, so that students get a flavour of University life.

The Department of Engineering supports SATRO throughout the year, providing volunteers and a venue for a number of activites designed to raise awareness of engineering in schools.

Primary Engineering Challenge

A series of Engineering workshops have recently been held here at the Department for Cambridgeshire primary school pupils aged 9-11.

The children came along to the Department for half a day to build rocket launch pad structures out of tubes. They then made paper rockets and had fun launching them.

The workshops which run throughout the year aim to give children a flavour of what Engineering is all about and the chance to meet real Engineers. The workshops' success relies on the student volunteers who take part and explain to the children what it is that they do and help them to solve engineering problems.

During the December and January workshops over 330 children took part.

These workshops are organised in partnership with ExSciTe Ltd and sponsored by the St. John's College and Gatsby Schools Project.

Perse boys visit ‘Silent’ Aircraft Initiative

Boys from The Perse School in Cambridge got the chance to be engineers for a day last week, when they met Cambridge University researchers who are trying to design a ‘Silent’ Aircraft.

We hope to use that excitement to get future generations interested in the idea of becoming engineers.

Paul Collins, project manager of the Cambridge-MIT Institute 'Silent' Aircraft initiative

Tom Law and Perse boys

Twenty-three boys from Year 8, accompanied by technology teachers David Gant and John Southworth, visited the Department to test out their ideas for making a passenger aircraft fly more quietly.

They took with them model ‘fairings’ – or shields – which they have been designing and making during their technology lessons this term. These are intended to fit around an aircraft’s undercarriage to cut down the noise that it produces during approach and landing. During their visit, the boys got the chance to test out their models in the University’s Markham wind tunnel, helped by researcher Alex Quayle, to see if they would succeed in reducing noise levels.

Researcher Tom Law also showed them a smoke tunnel, and showed the boys the way a model aircraft wing creates dramatic eddies and turbulence depending on its angle as it cuts through the air at high speed.

The boys were visiting researchers working on the Cambridge-MIT Institute’s ‘Silent’ Aircraft Initiative, and were invited by the project manager Paul Collins. He says,

“When we tell people that we are working on designing a passenger plane that is radically quieter than today’s aircraft, they are immediately interested and excited. We hope to use that excitement to get future generations interested in the idea of becoming engineers. As a result of this pilot exercise, we would like to roll out a project nationally next year.”

David Gant, Head of Technology at the Perse, says,

“This has been a very good project so we were very pleased when Paul approached us. It ties in with some of the work we have been doing in physics, and it also gave the boys the opportunity to use a vacuum former to make their models.”

The boys certainly enjoyed their visit. Freddie Bowden, 13, says,

“It was really cool. First we heard about why the undercarriage was so noisy, because of all the wires and hydraulic pipes on it. Then we made model fairings to see if they would reduce the noise.”

David Chapman, also 13, added,

“It was good fun, except that some of the models turned out a bit wrong. One of them has turned out looking a bit like the Batmobile!”

Michael Franklin, 13, added,

“We won’t get the results from the tests in the wind tunnel for a few days. But we could see the graph that was produced during the tests, and the fact that the ‘spikes’ made on the graph by the normal undercarriage were reduced a bit when the models were tested.”

Perse school technology teacher John Southworth adds,

“It has really demonstrated the importance of reducing the environmental impact of technology – in this case, cutting the noise of an aircraft. And meeting design engineers today, who are working on the same challenge that they have been tackling, has shown the boys that designing an aircraft is perhaps not that far removed from something that they could do in future.”

The photograph on this pages shows researcher Tom Law (left) demonstrating the smoke tunnel to Perse boys Romesh Jayasundera, Josh Holmes, Stephen Kemp, and David Katz.

Ideas take flight for Suffolk pupils

The trip was organised jointly by the Gifted and Talented Waveney Schools Project in Suffolk and St John's College, Cambridge, to enrich the school curriculum in maths and science and give pupils a glimpse of university life.

One of the main aims of the project is to raise the aspirations and attainments of gifted and talented students in science and maths, and give them a glimpse of the opportunities that exist in engineering, and what better way of doing that than to give them hands-on experience in an inspiring setting.

Beth Derks, of

Taking part were year 7 and 8 pupils from six schools - five state schools and one independent school - all in the Waveney Valley. Their day began with a talk by Paul Thomas, a researcher at the Whittle Laboratory, who spoke about the maths and physics behind flight and gave an overview of possible careers in engineering.

After lunch the students walked to the Department of Engineering to put what they'd just learned into practise by making their own gliders using basic materials such as card, polystyrene, tape, paper clips and plasticine. Activities were coordinated by the Department's Outreach Officer Joy Warde and a team of volunteer student helpers.

Their designs - which varied from bi-planes to jumbo jets - were put to the test in one of the lecture theatres where the most elegant gliders flew a distance of 25 metres to shouts of applause. Those that were too heavy crash landed into the seating; those that weren't symmetrical or properly balanced flew at a tangent and hit the walls.

"The best thing about the day is making things ourselves," said Cameron Read from Halesworth Middle School. He was hard at work with scissors and tape with his co-designer, Ben Bradshaw. "Our first glider smashed into a wall and fell to bits - now we've got just five minutes to make a new one," he said.

Antony Chambers, another pupil from Halesworth, said: "This is great fun for me because I might want to be a pilot in the future. I'm good at maths and I've been on a flight simulator in Germany - and they said I did well. The talk from Paul was really interesting."

The pupils' verdict on Cambridge was positive - and that included the vital matter of food. "The lunch at St John's was really good - a buffet with sausage rolls, chicken and éclairs," said Antony's friend, Jens Stohr with genuine appreciation.

The visit was part of a programme designed for Waveney schools by Beth Derks and Wietske Bohncke of Beth said: "One of the main aims of the project is to raise the aspirations and attainments of gifted and talented students in science and maths, and give them a glimpse of the opportunities that exist in engineering, and what better way of doing that than to give them hands-on experience in an inspiring setting. On the coach home pupils and teachers were buzzing with excitement."

All arrangements in Cambridge were made by Chris Cotton, Schools Liaison Officer at St John's College. He said: "We're able to act like a bridge between schools and the outreach resources that exist across the departments. In this case, we put together a programme that offered both a social and academic experience with insights into several aspects of Cambridge - including college life and research - with the accent on putting learning into action."


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