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Studying electronic engineering

electronic engineerGadget lover Stephen English, is studying electronic engineering. He explains how you can develop the skills you need to think like an engineer.

What stage are you up to in your career?

I finished sixth form and then spent ten months working as an engineer on a local chemical plant, making medicines for human and animal tests. I had a great time, learning about all sorts of technologies as well as how a really big business works. I then started university, studying electronic engineering at the University of Southampton - I'm now in my second year, having a great time learning about how all my favourite gadgets and gizmos work, and making some of my own!

When did you decide to become an engineer?

Whilst in sixth form I got involved with the Engineering Education Scheme - an activity run by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Four people from my school took on a challenge from a local company and tried to solve a real life problem they had. We had lots of support from the company and from the school and came up with some interesting ideas. I enjoyed the challenge of using what I'd learnt over the years as well as my intuition to solve a real problem, and decided that I had to be an engineer.

Was there anything or anyone in particular that inspired you?

When I was about 7, I was given a computer that was old even then! This computer was very simple. It would be useless for trying to play the latest games, but because it was simple you could start to get a feel for what was going on under the covers.

It was a revelation when I realised that computers aren't powered by pixies – they are simply fantastic machines that can be understood with a little effort. Modern computers are much more complicated, and it's much harder to see what's going on under the covers, but I can assure you – it doesn't involve magic!

What does the training involve?

Engineering is applying what we know about how the world works - science and mathematics - and using it to make the world better for humans. My university course covers lots of maths and lots of science, but I most enjoy using what I've learnt to make working examples of up-to-date technology.

Can you describe a typical working day?

Most days at university are reasonably full, either with: lectures, labs or time spent prep0aring for future labs and projects. A lecture lasts forty-five minutes and covers an area of science or mathematics that we have to know about. A lab lasts three hours and is spent working with real equipment to solve real problems, and we have two of these a week.

What's the best thing about your course?

The best thing about my course is the practical work we do - both the weekly labs and the big group projects we are occasionally set. Our group projects are spent working in teams of six solve a big problem over a couple of weeks. The group projects get very intense - working through the night fuelled by take-away and coffee - but the satisfaction in producing a real working system is tremendous.

What do you like least about your course?

An engineering course is not easy - there is an incredible amount to know and understand. This can lead to a few nights in when friends are enjoying a night out, but the rewards are definitely worth it.

Have you had any challenges to overcome?

As far as I can tell, I am the first person in my family to go to college or university. Whilst my parents were very supportive, they couldn't help me with any school work - so I made sure I tried to keep up at school.

What personal qualities do you think are important for your work?

An engineer should, above all, be interested in science, technology and what it can do to make life easier and more fun. Thinking in a straight forward, logical, mathematical way is important for making things work - and creative thinking allows you to come up with exciting (and profitable!) new ways of solving problems.

What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?

Other than making sure that school work is taken care of, I would encourage anyone wanting to get into engineering to fiddle! Fiddle with computers, with cars, with anything you can get your hands on. If something is broken, try and fix it. Making technology work better for you is traditionally referred to as hacking (nothing to do with breaking into computer systems) – hacking is tremendous fun and you will learn very fast what works and what doesn't. www.hackaday.com and other similar sites are a great insight into what other people are managing to do – can you do better?

What do you think engineers offer society?

Engineers are responsible for every device that makes our lives easier and more fun – everything from cars to mobile phones, from computers to advanced clothing. Engineers save lives by designing safer cars, medical devices and water treatment systems. Engineers help us communicate with mobile phones, the internet and digital television. No other profession gives you the ability to affect so many lives in so many ways.