The Rolls-Royce Science Prize

This week, the winner of the Rolls-Royce Annual Science Prize was announced during a special ceremony held at the science museum in London. Chris...
17 October 2010

Interview with 

Prof. Rick Parker, Vaughan Lewis & Neil Glover, Rolls-Royce, Robert Aspden, Teesdale School


A Rolls-Royce Trent900 Jet Engine


This week, the winner of the Rolls-Royce Annual Science Prize was announced during a special ceremony held at the science museum in London.  Chris Smith was there to hear who won...

James Dyson -   In 2010, Japan filed 330,000 patents, America 240,000, Britain 17,000.  Other countries are now dwarfing our technology output and produce far more engineers than we do.

Chris -   The numbers make quite sobering listening, don't they?  But the main point that cyclonic vacuum cleaner inventor Sir James Dyson was making during his keynote speech at this year's Rolls-Royce Science Prize Award Ceremony is that if we're to keep British engineering open for business and internationally competitive, then we desperately need to invest in the education and nurturing of the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.  It's a view that's shared by many leading industrialists and specialist manufacturers, including Rolls-Royce themselves as the group's director of research and development, Professor Rick Parker explains.

Rolls-Royce Trent 900 on the prototype Airbus A380. This aircraft carries four.Rick -   We're very worried about the quality of science teaching and the enthusiasm for science amongst young people today.  They weren't going into science courses, they're often being put off science at a very young age, so there was no chance of them going on to university to do science or engineering because they just haven't done the right subjects in the run up to leaving school.

Chris -   Rick Parker.  To tackle this problem, the company have set up a prize, targeting teachers.  Vaughan Lewis

Vaughan -   The Science Prize is an annual competition we've been running for teachers for the past 6 years.  It was launched on our anniversary year and the idea is we asked teachers how they would improve science education in their school or college with £6,000 from Rolls-Royce.  We worked through the science learning centre network to get those entries and each year, we get from 1,500 to 2000 schools that put an entry in.  From those, the 50 best is selected to win £1,000 as a short list and from that short list, we choose 9 finalist schools, and those schools receive a further £5,000 to go ahead with their project ideas over the following academic year.

Chris -   Why did you think there was a need to do this?

Vaughan -   At Rolls-Royce, we are very committed to ensuring that the next generation of students coming through will have the right skills, the right understanding, the right knowledge to be able to work in companies such as Rolls Royce.  High-tech and high value added companies.  So they've got to have an understanding of the basic science behind things, and be enthusiastic about it and want to go on and study at degree level and beyond, so that they can come and work for us, or want to come and work for us through apprenticeships and really get their hands on with real science and engineering.

Chris -   It's telling though isn't it, if a company like Rolls-Royce has to start putting together prizes to try and stimulate what many people would argue ought to be going on in schools anyway.  That's what schools are for, to try and get people interested in sciences and development so that Britain carries on as a manufacturing nation.

Vaughan -   What I say about that is - I mean, the teachers do a great job, there's a lot of very good teachers out there, encouraging a lot of students to do this, but what we were trying to do with this money is allow them to do something above and beyond what they normally do.  And so, with £6,000, if you are in a primary school, that's a lot of money.  Our winners last year was a primary school and they received a further £15,000 pounds from us and so they received £21,000 pounds from us.  We spoke to the science coordinator of that school.  His budget for the whole school was £700 for the following year.  So, we're able, through what we are doing is just to give them a big boost and allow them to do more than they would do, just to really raise the profile of science and engineering in the school and make it fundamental to what the people are studying.

Chris -   Vaughan Lewis.  So that's the theory, but what about in practice?  Well, here's this year's winner to tell us.

Robert -   My name is Robert Aspden.  I'm a science teacher working at Teesdale School.  I run a club called the STEM club, that's for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths.  It's supposed to encourage students to want to take on those careers in the future because England and Great Britain are getting behind a little bit with that and we're trying to make sure that doesn't happen and we stay the great nation for engineers that we are.  So the Rolls-Royce prizes allowed my club to push the limits of what the students could achieve.

Chris -   What was the project you did that won you the prize?

Robert -   I had the students designing, building and researching enrichment devices for a captive group of primates, some mandrills at Chester Zoo.  There's a big issue at the moment about zoos and the lifestyle that animals have, so we were setting about trying to encourage and develop the lives of these animals to stop them from going insane in the captive situations.  So we work with Chester Zoo who do lots of work with their animals, trying to encourage them to work for their food, and prevent these insanity behaviours that can develop.

Chris -   So what did the students actually have to do and what do you think they learned from doing this?

Robert -   The first part of the project, we visited the zoo so they got to see the animals and we have them studying the behaviours of the animals, so that then when they went on to design the feeders that we made, they actually made them link to the animals.  So, after we did the research using obviously the internet and other resources, they had a design phase where they designed and built the feeders.  We then gave those devices to Chester Zoo and a former colleague of mine who works for Salford University is doing an extended longitudinal study on whether we have or haven't actually benefited the animals because we wanted to prove, scientifically, that we have actually enriched their lives, rather than just say, we built these toys, we gave in to them, we've done our job, we wanted to actually prove that.

Chris -   What about the children who took part in the study.  How old were the students and what do you think they got out of it?

Robert -   Well there's two parts to that answer, I suppose.  The club is a key stage 3 club, so that's students of ages 11 up to about 14.  The benefits to them was to do things like, just encourage their thinking behaviour, their team working, their skills about technology, and science, so they can see how all that actually links together in an applied sense.

Chris -   What about in terms of the long term goal for Rolls-Royce? I've spoken with Rolls-Royce, they tell me that their aim is to try to get teachers like you to stimulate students to become the engineers of tomorrow.  Are you seeing evidence that the students that you have got involved in this project are going to go in to research to benefit Britain in the future?

Robert -   As part of the project, we actually did some analyses through questionnaires where we asked the students their opinion of STEM related subjects, STEM careers, and whether they were interested in moving in to those areas.  Quite a lot of them said, as a result of this project, we'd either encouraged them to take on STEM related subjects at A-level, possibly university.  There was definitely a positive relationship in the number of students who then thought they would actually be interested in careers in that.  And there were a number of students who actually said, because we've done something unusual looking at primates and biology, they didn't realise just how much engineering could be related to that side of science as well, so they were quite interested in doing that too.

Chris - Science teacher at Teesdale School in Durham, that was Robert Aspden who won this year's Rolls-Royce Science Prize.  There are more details about the prize on the web at

So that's the schools side of the equation, but what about higher level training that will turn university students into the specialist engineers and materials scientists of tomorrow?  Well, in the last 12 months, Rolls-Royce have also launched a multi-million pound initiative called the strategic partnership, which aims to do just that.

Neil -   I'm Neil Glover, I'm a materials scientist at Rolls-Royce, and I'm responsible for the content and execution of the research programme within the company.  The strategic partnership is a partnership between Rolls-Royce and the EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, that enables us to fund research in our preferred universities within the UK, on a whole range of materials science topics that underpins all of our technology going in to engines.

Chris -   People might say "Rolls-Royce is a big company, why doesn't it fund it's own research?"  Why do you have to work with universities for that?

Neil -   Well the universities enable us to provide a level of deep independent research on the more academic aspects of materials science that can then underpin the work that we do in company to deploy that technology into engines.  So it's the freedom for the academics to think, to explore, to check out new technologies, and to investigate problems and detailed issues of materials understanding that we just simply don't have time for in the day to day business.

Chris -   So looking at the nuts and bolts of how the partnership works, is this just a research exercise or is the aim here also to try to get people in a position where they could then go on to have progression in Rolls-Royce if they chose to do so?

Neil -   It's absolutely that.  Rolls-Royce is very much dependent on the recruitment of highly skilled materials scientists, and traditionally that has always come largely from our own internal supply chain, through the universities and through the research base.  And so the strategic partnership, as much as it develops technology, also develops people who we can recruit into the company, or who can go into academia.


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