After almost a quarter of a century, The International Society for Air Breathing Engines headed back to Australia after for its biannual ISABE conference.

Held in the Nation’s capital and hosted by UNSW Canberra, some 300 delegates from across the world spent a week discussing the advances, current state-of-the-art research and continuing and emerging challenges for air-breathing engines. 

UNSW Canberra staff and event organisers Professor Andrew Neely and Senior Lecturer Dr Bianca Capra, both aerospace engineers, said the conference had something for everyone in the world of air-breathing engines, bringing together leading world experts on air-breathing engines and exposed them to some of the very best in Australian aerospace research and practice. 

Some of the high profile national and international keynote speakers included Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer Dr Paul Stein, Reaction Engines President Dr Adam Dissel, Boeing Chief Scientist of Hypersonics Dr Kevin Bowcutt, Qantas Chief Technical Pilot Captain Alex Passerini, Canadian National Research Council icing group leader Jim MacLeod, Pratt & Whitney Military Engines VP of Engineering Mr Thomas Prete, and Air Vice-Marshall Catherine Roberts.

Boeing Chief Scientist of Hypersonics Dr Kevin Bowcutt was one of many high profile attendees to take part in keynotes and STEM outreach programs during the week.  

“Some of the highlights of the conference were listening to the large variety of keynotes speakers on topics ranging from electric and hybrid engine technology, to advancing hypersonic flight to achieve passenger Mach 4 flight,” Dr Capra said.

This year, however, the conference had a big difference. For the first time in ISABE’s history, the international conference hosted a parallel STEM event for high school girls.

Dr Capra said women still remain under-represented in engineering, with as little as 12.4 per cent of qualified engineers in Australia across all disciplines being female, with the numbers within aerospace engineering even lower.

This statistic, and a passion to address gender inequality in engineering, led Prof Neely and Dr Capra to create a dedicated aerospace STEM event for ISABE in partnership with the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Cool Aeronautics program and Women in Aviation Australia.

“By inviting school girls to the conference, we are visibly showing our community the next generation of engineers and purposefully showing them to be female,” Dr Capra said.

“From the atmosphere and discussion at the STEM event, the delegates and speakers embraced what we were trying to achieve. They committed with full enthusiasm to showing the girls the joy and wonder of a career in aerospace.”

UNSW Canberra Senior Lecturer Dr Bianca Capra addresses highschool students during the Friday morning STEM outreach session.  

She was also delighted that the delegates actively and purposefully changed the use of pronouns to describe engineers to female, noting that gendered pronouns persist when talking about engineers.

“As little as a few years ago in such a high profile international professional conference this would not have happened so it was really great to see,” she said.  

The school students experienced a small part of the main conference and also listened to tailored presentations by Qantas Captain Lisa Norman, who talked about managing 787 operations, and Dr Kevin Bowcutt who discussed the future of hypersonic flight.

Hands-on activities included assembling a jet engine from a 3D-printed kit developed by UNSW Canberra staff members.

Qantas Captain Lisa Norman worked with local students to construct a 3D-printed jet engine as part of the STEM outreach activities.  

“What the girls learnt from this activity is how to interpret engineering drawings, how a gas turbine fits together and the fundamental concepts of how they work,” Dr Capra said.

“These are all real skills an aerospace propulsion engineer must have, and yet many girls lack confidence in such activities. Improving this confidence was one goal of the event, as well as to just introduce the girls to careers in aerospace and hopefully inspire them to consider a career in this area.”

The 43 students comprised year 8 to 12 students from Canberra’s St Clare’s College, Orana Steiner School, Merici College, Brindabella Christian College and Dickson College. The Pretoria High School for Girls (South Africa) was also represented. There were also two girls from Victoria, one from Sydney and one from the United States, showing international collaboration starts young.

The students worked with experts from NASA, Qantas, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, the Australian Defence Force and UNSW Canberra to build their turbofans, all having a lot of fun and learning from each other. 

The gas turbine activity will be a new addition to UNSW Canberra Young Women in Engineering (YoWIE) workshop, which Dr Capra co-chairs. Registrations are still open and Year 8 and 9 students are invited to attend this free event.

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