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Land speed record and inspiration and informal education

The conference was closed by a talk from Richard Noble about the challenge of breaking the land speed record, first with ThrustSSC, the first car to break the sound barrier, and now with BloodhoundSSC, which is planned to be the first car to travel at 1000mph.  This was a story of derring-do and engineering.
One less obvious aspect of the BloodhoundSSC story is the education project built around it.  The UK doesn’t produce enough engineers and is the worst country in Europe for the gender balance in engineering: only 10% of professional engineers are women.    In 50% of all state co-ed schools not a single girl is taking Physics A-level.  Richard attributes this in part to the lack of projects to generate excitement in children.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s kids would see Avro Vulcans, English Electric Lightnings and Concorde flying overhead and some of those kids would be excited by them.  Americans had the space race.  (Later on, of course, British kids had Spectrums and BBC Micros and learnt all about computers).
Richard sees the BloodhoundSSC as an adventure which can generate enthusiasm among schoolkids.  The education project has team of 20 people and has reached 5,400 schools throughout the UK and more schools overseas, including the remote desert area of South Africa where the test track is being built. 

Another interesting aspect of Richard’s story is the role of the web vs conventional mass media.  During the ThrustSSC project he tried to engage conventional broadcasters in producing TV programmes about the design and the challenges.  None of them were interested.  His contact at the BBC told him that the public weren’t interested in technology.  Then he was approached by a web design company.  This was in 1992 and he hadn’t even heard of the web but he saw an opportunity.  By 1997 this was the 5th most popular web site in the world and people were reading the technical specs as well as the promotional material.

This story is repeating itself.  The BloodhoundSSC project has been approached by many TV companies but none of them have wanted to include any technical material so the project has turned them all down. 

This was a fun presentation and parts of it were inspiring. Richard didn’t directly address any issues that might affect us in our own work.  He stressed that the teamwork was vital but didn’t give any suggestions for how to make a team work, although he exemplified several aspects of leadership – he obviously has a clear vision, tremendous enthusiasm, dogged persistence in the face of setbacks and good communication skills.  He could do with a bit of work on his timekeeping – the hour-long presentation overran by almost half an hour and I had to miss the last ten minutes.


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