As a high school student in Canada, Dr Emanuela Tilley was urged to study engineering, due to her ability in maths and physics. She was sceptical at first because she didn’t think it would provide enough opportunities for creativity. However, as soon as she began working on projects with tangible impacts, she knew engineering was for her.
She specialised in mechanical engineering because of the design opportunities it offered. “What attracted me was always the creative side; how engineering and architecture blend seamlessly to create the world we live in.” The idea of designing cars and rockets, as well as smart buildings based on engineering principles, appealed.
Although typically seen as a masculine field, she thinks mechanical engineering is an excellent choice for girls because of the breadth of options it offers: it can prepare you for a career in other engineering disciplines, while also offering creative options for product and industrial design. “I was able to go from mechanical engineering into aerodynamics”, she says, “which is quite a playful area: design is based on the interplay between structures and air, which is difficult to see but absolutely critical to do well”.
Tilley spent 7 years away from academia, making famous buildings that are incredibly challenging, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, and London’s Shard and Cheesegrater – engineering sound.
However, she always knew she wanted to come back to academia, and is now using her experience in industry to revamp education for future engineers at UCL.
She is currently Director of the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP), created to give students the opportunity to practice theoretical knowledge and develop industry-relevant skills to improve their employability. The IEP stands apart from more traditional programmes, and students realise this, she says. She has introduced more authentic learning styles, similar to the project work that inspired her as an undergraduate.
“Authentic learning enables students to tackle real problems such as poverty, pollution and congestion; or focuses on the authenticity of tasks – not just academic but something a graduate engineer might be asked to do, such as a state of the art report, new experiments, or field measurements.” She emphasises the importance of critical thinking: “does my answer make sense? Does it consider financial, risk and ethics implications? Is it viable and environmentally sustainable?”
She says one challenge to getting more girls into engineering is that female engineers are often categorised as a single type, which is an unfair representation of their diversity. The biggest challenge is getting to girls who think it’s not an inclusive environment.
“What engineering offers girls and women is the opportunity to make an impact,” she says. Whether working as an engineer or applying those skills in another field, the foundation you get while studying engineering gives you many opportunities; it opens your eyes to what’s possible. Choosing to study engineering is especially important for girls because change can happen for the better of the cause.
“I have a daughter who’s 20 months old, and being able to do this for her, whether or not she becomes an engineer, makes me incredibly proud.”