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An interview with Gabby Bouchard, Engineering Access Officer at Oxford University, who uses her love of engineering to encourage more pupils to study the subject at university. Her work focuses on attracting students from schools with limited progression to Oxford, disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education.

Gabby Bouchard. Photo credit John Cairns.

'When I was thirteen years old,' begins Gabby, 'I was deeply affected by an outreach activity. One of my local universities – the one I ended up going to actually – came to my rural school in Canada and performed an engineering demonstration for us. We heard about how, with just a little bit of engineering knowledge, we could improve life for thousands of people. It was thanks to that one-hour demonstration that I knew engineering was for me.'

Gabby is a perfect example of how effective education outreach can be. After graduating from McMaster University in Canada with a degree in engineering, she began working in industry. 'I wasn’t really enjoying the work I was doing at that time, so it felt like fate when this job came up,' she says.

Gabby now uses her love of engineering to encourage more pupils to study the subject at university. Her work focuses on attracting students from schools with limited progression to Oxford, disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education.

The wonderful thing about engineering is that it's a real door opener for students; it gives young people the tools to do just about anything.- Gabby Bouchard

The majority of students that Gabby works with are in Year 12 (ages 16 to 17); pupils who know they want to go into science and technology but haven’t made any firm decisions about which institution or course to choose.

'My job is to try and convince them that engineering is the best undergraduate degree to have,' she explains. 'The wonderful thing about engineering is that it's a real door opener for students; it gives young people the tools to do just about anything. If they can get into engineering and complete their degree it can really change their lives.'

The Engineering Access Officer post that Gabby holds was made possible thanks to the generosity and vision of donor Michael Hill. 'I wish that there were more people who understood how far a gift to an access-field can go,' says Gabby. 'One person doing a role like this can genuinely affect thousands of different people.'

Thanks to this new post, the Department of Engineering Science has substantially increased the number of secondary school pupils it has been able to engage with, growing its audience from 500 to nearly 2,000 students over the past year.

'We have a lot of really dedicated professors, graduates, undergraduates and staff here that want to help,' says Gabby, 'but before the post was created it was all done on a piecemeal, ad-hoc basis. Now, I'm able to connect the people that want to help, with the places where they can make a strategic difference.'

An important part of this strategy includes building stronger internal collaborations across all of the science departments at Oxford, and Gabby now helps to coordinate large multi-science events for students, to give them a 'taste of the lesser known sciences.'

These events also allow her to identify and connect with students who have an aptitude for engineering – even those who have not considered studying it at university. 'I do find that we get a lot of students saying this is something that they didn’t know even existed,' she explains. 'When you tell them about engineering, something just clicks!'

For five days they had the chance to really experience engineering. It's so important to be able to offer them this opportunity. - Gabby Bouchard

In addition to these multi-science events, the Department of Engineering Science also participates in a number of residential programmes, including UNIQ, a summer school for students from UK state schools or colleges, and Headstart, a series of experience weeks for sixth-form students run by engineering departments across the country.

'Last year we had 38 students coming for Headstart,' explains Gabby. 'For five days they had the chance to really experience engineering. It's so important to be able to offer them this opportunity.'

Gabby also runs events for younger school students, as well those that specifically target girls, in an effort to attract more females into the engineering field.

The challenge, now she's in her second year in post, will be to evaluate how exactly Oxford can make the biggest impact. 'There is a whole access ecosystem out there, so at the moment we're trying to figure out where the University can add most value,' she says. 'It's a discovery process.'

There's a lot of enthusiasm from our undergraduates to get involved. - Gabby Bouchard

She's keen to develop the department's capacity to deliver engineering outreach activities to wider parts of the UK, and also hopes to grow a student ambassador programme created during her first year at Oxford.

'There's a lot of enthusiasm from our undergraduates to get involved in this type of thing,' she notes. 'Many of our current students came from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves and didn't think that they would be able to get into university – but they did, and now they feel that they want to give back.'

If you are part of the engineering community and would like to get involved with engineering science access at the University of Oxford, you can get in touch with Gabby by emailing her.

Story courtesy of Oxford Thinking: the Campaign for the University of Oxford https://www.campaign.ox.ac.uk/