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How was it for you;

As part of National Construction Week last week a group of sixth formers visited contractor Jackson to be exposed to the realities of life as a civil engineer. But did they like it?

What attracted you to civil engineering? Has the reality been anything like you imagined it to be?

There was probably a romantic image of a suspension bridge at the back of your mind, like one of the students on a Jackson Civil Engineering careers day in Suffolk last week had. And you would be doing some unspecified - but very important - task under the setting sun of a far flung outpost of the world.

After an intensive morning carrying out real life exercises set by Jackson, two dozen Suffolk sixth formers now have a far better idea of what the more down to earth tasks that most civil engineers do actually are, and what sort of projects they might be on. It would, hoped Jackson director Clive Musson, inspire them to future careers in construction.

The day was organised as part of National Construction Week to give the students a feel for the excitement, rewards and frustrations that every civils project generates. The sixth formers worked on real civils conundrums that Jackson itself had already solved.

And after that did civil engineering appeal? Happily, yes.

Students were surprised at the extent of what was involved and said the projects had given them a much better feel for the job. Several said that they would consider civil engineering as a career and indeed that they were more likely to choose it than before the exercise. 'It was brilliant,' summed up one as he left.

Jackson publishing and PR manager Sue Wilcock was keen to promote the problem-solving aspects of civil engineering during National Construction Week. The progect was developed in conjunction with the Construction Industry Training Board and Suffolk County Council's Suffolk Partnership, which links education and industry. Two teachers worked with Jackson's business development manager John Clarke to set the problems.

Wilcock hopes it can become an annual event, and Frank Pearson of CITB is keen to see it developed as a national game. Suffolk Partnerships area education business partnership manager Pam Walker says a similar day is being considered for girls - only boys came along last week.

Each of the six teams took a different scheme, covering bridges, a tunnel, excavation for a pumping station, road resurfacing and sea defences. The students were asked to think through the entire project, considering what needed to be achieved, how it might be done, what equipment would be best, how long it would take and so on. They spent the morning engaged in lateral thinking, designing and planning, quizzing the engineers assigned to help, drawing up method statements, number crunching, reading from technical literature, pouring over site photos and drawing up bar chart programmes.

In judging their success helpers Dan Russell, Chris Souter and Phil Knight were asked which team they would want to be working with them on site and chose Copleston & Holywells sixth form.

This team had been tasked with planning replacement of a railway bridge in Colchester while at the same time widening the road beneath and increasing the clearance for lorries - and all this with just a five day possession of the railway. The project had been carried out over Christmas 1996, and won an East Anglian association merit award. Copleston quickly established that the road needed to be lowered, the abutments rebuilt and the new bridge fabricated off site.

Five days seemed like five minutes, so much needed doing, said team member Gurpreet Singh - who still has an open mind about his future career. 'I didn't think there would be so much detail and that it would be so exciting,' he said. 'It has given me a new perspective on what engineering is like.'

Students were quick to grasp what needed to be done to carry out their projects, spotting potential dangers and difficulties. Nor did they underestimate the problems - a simple sounding suggestion that some beams would need lifting out was followed by a wry comment that it was 'easier said than done'.

There was evidence of tough project managers in the making. A discussion on how to ensure the blacktop arrived on time was cut short when one team member pointed out that it was not their problem. They placed the order: it was up to the supplier to fulfill it if he wanted paying, he said.

The team looking at the Orwell Bridge had to think about why it was where it was, how it was built, its appearance and so on, while the students assessing tunnel repairs in Ipswich had to consider issues as diverse as planning, ventilation and even the presence of rats.

A sea defence problem had its team grapling not only with the engineering, but with all sorts of environmental issues even down to the sourcing of hardwood.

Excavation for a new pumping station through a variety of ground and 'all kinds of nasties' brought in the need for rapid studies of steel piling and bracing, plus safety issues. A suggestion that extra payments would compensate for putting workers in danger was gently steered by the team's engineer helper into a way of designing out the danger.

The three engineers assigned to help professed themselves very satisfied with the teams' work, the way they grasped the problems and constraints, came up with innovative ideas and creative thinking. The fact that the winning team managed to 'carry out' the Colchester rail project in just three days might just cause some red faces at Jackson. Perhaps, it was suggested, they should have given them current jobs to resolve.

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