Heroes wanted! Consider a career in acoustics and save the world

Heulwen Peters discusses the importance of engaging young people by highlighting the role acoustics plays in making the world a better place.

I wonder how many school children would feel more enthusiastic about a career in acoustics if we could promise that? That the work they would do as an acoustician will make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. That it will improves people’s living conditions and provide and protect habitats for wildlife. That it will support people’s health and healing, and provide technology that better connects people to their environments, whatever their aural response.

Hopefully you’re thinking, “but that’s exactly what we do!”

STEM activities are back in force in schools across the country. The 2022/2023 academic year is the first full year where extra-curricular activities are ‘back to normal’ and this has meant the return of in-person STEM fairs and acousticians coming in to work with pupils.

A future better by design

Most STEM ambassadors will be familiar with the traditional ‘science experiment’ approach for children. But more than ever, how we deliver STEM content to pupils (who might be anywhere from ages four to 18) must be tailored to answer the concerns and questions young people have. How do we reduce our global environmental impact? How can we improve living conditions for people around the world? How can we reduce human impact on wildlife? How do we make the world a better place?

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Frontiers’ report published in 2022 identified three emerging issues of environmental concern, and the first of these was noise. Within the report a huge amount of focus is given to soundscapes, the health effects of noise on humans, and the impact of noise on animals.

Today’s acousticians are developing the tools and solutions to these problems, but tomorrow’s acousticians will be instrumental in making the future inherently better for humans and wildlife by design.

Bringing environmental discussions into IOA’s STEM work can increase engagement with pupils, particularly those who lean toward ‘save the world’ careers and are intimidated by the traditional tropes of engineering. It can also help STEM organisations feel more able to incorporate acoustics into the wider STEM discussions and events – many of which are now focused on climate change and the environment.

STEM in practice

So, what do the STEM activities look like in practice? As a discipline, acoustics is inherently about improving people’s lives so it’s not difficult to find opportunities to enter the discussion. The UN’s first concern, the soundscape, lends itself well to STEM work, with all ages and abilities of children able to take part in sound walks. It can open discussions about aural diversity and aural response, or about tranquillity and how different each person’s experience is.

We can also talk about the effects of noise on the animal kingdom. This could take the form of quizzes asking them to identify the oil drill vs the whale song, or thought experiments on how wildlife populations might be affected by a planted acoustic bund vs a concrete barrier.

And of course, some of the experiments and activities we already run with pupils can be reframed, to make pupils think more about how the real-world impact of these engineering principals.

Our STEM work can and should show future acousticians that we really do make a real difference to the world around us and improve it for all.