Dr Michael Myers is the Executive Chairman of the Re-Engineering Australia Foundation, which he founded in 1998 to encourage young people to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) via programs such as the F1 in Schools technology competition. He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Tell us about the REA Foundation and its aims.

MM: It’s fundamentally about getting kids engaged with STEM. When I started, my background led me to be more focused on attracting students to engineering, but this expanded significantly as I grew to understand that, in attracting students to professions that build a nation, the problem was much broader. At the time there wasn’t much around that gave students much reason to be interested in STEM subjects.

The education system really isn’t designed to get kids interested in careers; I don’t think the system’s at all attuned to the skills industry needs or wants. Our political system has over a long period of time facilitated the development of a set of educational silos. There’s Maths and English and History and Science etc, and they all have their own departments and a mentality based around defending their own space at the expense of what industry and the country needs.

We need skills developed in our children like collaboration, communication, presentation, problem-solving, teamwork … soft skills, they’re often termed. And none of these needs are directly addressed by the education system. Each silo is determined to stand alone, with few if any linking what they teach to the life skills we need our students to have.

AMT: What activities is the Foundation engaged in to address this?

MM: I’ll give you a bit of history. Back in 1998, my business (engineering consulting practice CONCENTRIC) was supplying high-end computer-aided engineering technology across the Asia-Pacific region. Three of my four daughters were at high school, and I hadn’t done anything with the school. I went to the headmaster and said: “I feel guilty, I haven’t done anything around the school. Is there something I can do?” And he said: “The kids are building Mileage Marathon cars on Monday nights. You’re an engineer; you could probably help.”

I turned up the first Monday night thinking ‘I’m going to blow these kids out of the water’, and they rolled out this carbon-fibre monocoque car that had the world record at 3,200 miles per gallon. And I fell off my perch. I turned to one of the kids and said “How did you do this?” And he looked at me and said “No-one said we couldn’t.” I thought ‘I’m sitting here with the best technology in the world. What could happen if we gave that technology to kids, and set them free?’

That’s how it started. We initially had a university competition to encourage engineering, which was fabulous, but we soon realised those kids were already committed to doing engineering, and we needed to get to kids earlier in the educational process. On my travels I’d seen the origins of F1 in Schools in the UK, so we brought that back to Australia. We added in the industry connections, the collaboration, the communication. Since then we’ve worked with the English to build up the whole F1 in Schools concept, and now it’s in 44 countries and around 17,000 schools.

On top of that we’ve created additional programs with the same underlying principles to develop employability skills and teamwork, using methods commonly known as “action learning” – learning by doing, or project-based learning. It’s about throwing kids in at the deep end, so they’ve got to work their way out of a problem. In addition to F1, we’ve got 4×4 in Schools and Subs in Schools. Each of these are stepping stones, offering more and more complexity. While students can enter any of the programs we’ve found F1 in Schools brings the largest increase in employability skills. The students learn an awful lot from the process, and once they’ve done F1, the other projects are like water off a duck’s back.

AMT: It sounds like fun. How do the kids respond?

MM: Well let me step back a little in time. When we started, what we did was instinctive, what felt good, what I would have responded to. In the process of raising money, however, Governments kept asking “Where’s the research to back it up?” I think that’s an excuse not to give you money. There wasn’t any research that I knew of, so I went back to Uni and completed a Doctorate on the Motivational Drivers for Children’s Career Decision Choices. I wanted to know if there was there something theoretical behind what we were picking up anecdotally. And we got a whole truckload of stuff about how to motivate and engage kids – kids aged between five and 85 – and much of this is genetically wired and applies to how we motivate and engage employees.

One thing we found was that giving boys Lego and leaving them alone in the corner, and giving the girls the dolls, is completely back to front. Boys should never be left alone – they constantly seek out human contact. So with the boys, what we’re doing has nothing to do with the cars; it has to do with who they’re going to meet and work with along the way. They’re continuously seeking out a need to work with people in teams. For boys, role models are absolutely critical.

Girls on the other hand don’t seek out human contact, they don’t respond to role models. They respond to an understanding of the complexity of a situation, because they want to manage it. They seek out knowledge about their environment. What we haven’t done with girls is tell them how much work’s needed to manage STEM environments and the part they can play. If you inform girls how they can influence those environments they’re easily attracted to STEM careers.

So to answer your question, we’re providing an environment that satisfies the genetic requirements of boys and girls, and they love it, they absolutely have a ball. We try and attune what we do with what we know from research to be the basic things they respond to. The result is they put a huge amount of work into what they do, because “no-one said they couldn’t”, or shouldn’t. They do it because they want to.

AMT: Tell us about your professional background.

MM: When I was a kid, my father had an engineering business, so from ten years old I grew up sweeping floors, welding, getting my hands dirty, and unfortunately learning to swear too early in life. I grew up understanding the creativity of what you can do with your hands, what you can make with them. So it was natural for me to go into engineering.

In 1983 I went out on my own. CONCENTRIC was solving complex engineering problems all around the world. At the small end we worked with the craniofacial unit at Adelaide Hospital reconstructing children’s faces that had deformities. We would take CAT scans of the children’s skulls, then rapid-prototype 3D models that the doctors could perform the operation on before the kids ever went into theatre. We led the world with that, but we struggled to get Government behind what we were doing. On the bigger side, we undertook a great deal of design work inside the Holden Monaro, with Toyota on the Camry, and with Mitsubishi. And I had engineers working on the Boeing 777, 787 and Airbus A380 projects. We did that right across Asia, in collaboration with companies from France, Japan, India, Germany and the US. So my background could be described as high-end engineering of trains, planes and automobiles.

AMT: What might an ordinary working day entail for you?

MM: Probably about 90% is spent breaking arms of politicians and industry for funding. I spend a lot of time making presentations, explaining what we’re achieving. Right now I have four people who do most of the legwork in terms of day-to-day operations, so most of my time is marketing, getting the message out, and nagging Governments till they give in.

What we have done over the past 17 years is play a key role in driving the need of STEM education as a driver of the nation’s future. We’ve been plastering the STEM message out there so long the broader population are finally starting to understand its importance. Now my focus has moved toward selling the capability of our kids. People need to know how good our kids can be given the right opportunities.

AMT: We often hear of skills shortages as a problem facing Australian manufacturing. How can they be remedied?

MM: I’ll give you a fundamental first. I was talking to a futurist in the US, and he was saying he’d done two PhDs in mathematics because he’d thought of it as “getting closer to God” – his words. But he found it was boring. He said the people who are closer to God are the engineers and architects, who can take an idea and turn it into reality.

We’ve completely lost, at a political level, the importance of this ability to take an idea and create it. For some reason we’ve never been able to sell ourselves, as engineers or as manufacturers, the importance of that. We’re silly enough to be conned by things that happen in other places in the world instead of taking the lead. It’s all about taking the lead. There’s no reason why we can’t manufacture anything in this country.

I worked a lot with Toyota and losing Toyota was just suicidal – they’re an amazing company to work with, and they do so much for everybody around them. We’ve got to get back to making and doing things, and we can only do that if we change the minds of the country’s leaders, or get leaders that will do it. We need more engineers in politics, for a start.

AMT: What would you like to see Government doing?

MM: The problem with the Government is this: the REA Foundation has been doing this for 17 years and we’ve had amazing success, but you go to Government and their attitude is “What are other people doing?” They’re always looking overseas for solutions instead of looking here. We have other countries ringing us up saying “Can you come and help us to do what you’re doing because you’re doing such an amazing job?” And yet we can’t get politicians to see that. It’s this total disbelief that Australians know anything.

In the last few years we saw so many good companies go to the wall; they had huge amounts of IP, but they couldn’t get Government to support them, or the Government always says “Oh we’ll get it overseas.” The submarines are a perfect example. The political agenda has got in the way of an opportunity to create a whole set of industries around the skills needed in this exercise, in the design process. Developing skills – that’s what we need.

AMT: How do you see the industry evolving in the coming years?

MM: My belief is it will probably only evolve based on individual people with the passion to drive what they’re doing, because the chance of getting government support is not there. It will be driven by individuals who are passionate and believe in what they can achieve.

There’s a lot of talk by Governments about promoting new industries, but it’s absolute lip service, which is about all Governments are usually good at. With a focus on demand-side economics, there’s no way Governments will get behind industry because their scared of picking winners. Could you imagine a bunch of bureaucrats at a horse race? The bookies would have a field day. In our case the bookies are every other nation in the world, as our politicians continue knobbling Australian industry with their economic rationalism and approaches to (NOT) supporting innovation.

It’s going to be driven by individuals and not Government. Those individuals will need to get out there, travel overseas, see how poorly everyone else does it, and then come back and do it better. We have the brains, we have the cultural attitude to have a go, we’re instinctively innovative – we’re like that kid who said “No-one said we couldn’t.”