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Inspiring the next generation of researchers

By Paul E Dodds, on 13 March 2015

ideas (c) istockphoto tumpikujaShould academics spend time to talk about their research with the general public?  Academic careers depend on publishing high-quality papers and demonstrating the positive impacts of research for society, and it is easy to concentrate solely on these.  Yet I believe a key role for universities is to inspire the next generation of researchers.  This has been highlighted by two events I’ve attended in the last week.

Champion the Researchers

Last Friday, I took part in the second part of “Champion the Researchers”, which is an engagement event for 11 to 14 year old pupils.  Funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and organised by 4science, this initiative aims to explain the importance of engineering research and to encourage pupils to consider engineering as a career.

In the first part, which took place in December 2014, UCL held an event for 100 pupils from local schools in which three other academics joined me to explain our research interests and to organise hands-on sessions based on our research.

In the second part, pupils from Burnt Mill Academy in Harlow were chosen to return to UCL to shoot a 5-minute film about the research process, including identifying research ideas, undertaking research, publishing papers and using this to contribute to society.  The pupils interviewed me about my research on the future of the UK gas networks and the potential to convert them to deliver carbon-free hydrogen instead of natural gas.  I’m looking forward to seeing their final video in May 2015, which will be in competition with finalists from the other four universities in the scheme.

In both parts, I was struck by the high level of engagement of the pupils.  They were all very bright and asked some very good questions, and I really enjoyed hosting them.  I hope that some of them will choose an academic career in the future.

CleanTECH 2015 Challenge

The CleanTECH Challenge is a global innovation and business plan competition for university students.  Last night, I was one of the judges in the second round of the event, which was held at the EcoMachines Incubator in London.

Each team submitted a business plan, including a 1-minute video and a presentation.  Our group hotly debated the merits of plans from six teams from around the world, in order to select two teams to progress to the next stage of the competition, which is a 2-day boot camp at the London Business School.

Some of the teams put forward really good ideas and there were some really professional and entertaining videos!  It was also a good opportunity to network with the other judges, who were from a variety of backgrounds.  For example, UCL is planning a new MSc in Sustainable Resources, in which entrepreneurship has an important role, and we aim to introduce students to small companies and incubators that are working on the circular economy and on other initiatives in this area.

Some research disciplines have a strong focus on commercialising research insights, and this is facilitated by organisations such as InnovateUK and initiatives such as the Young Entrepreneur’s Scheme for PhD researchers, which I took part in several years ago.  We should not forget that we also have very entrepreneurial students and I think another important role for universities is to nurture and promote their talents.

British Science Week

These events are very timely because British Science Week starts today, with the aim of celebrating science, technology, engineering and maths across the UK.  Look out for daily blogs from across the four institutes of the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources, as part of our contribution.

Scientific research has a profoundly positive impact on all of our lives.  Universities are at the centre of research and innovation in the UK, and are also responsible for educating the scientists and entrepreneurs of the future.  We are mostly publically-funded, and I believe it’s our duty to engage with the public to inspire the next generation of researchers.

 

Paul Dodds is Lecturer in Energy Systems in the UCL Energy Institute and UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources

 

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