Inspiring the next generation of structural engineers - Martin Ashmead

Author: IStructE

Date published

20 July 2023

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Inspiring the next generation of structural engineers - Martin Ashmead

Date published


Date published

20 July 2023



“I get a kick from seeing people succeed, especially when they didn’t believe they could” Few educators fill lecture halls at the age of 83. Fewer still have done so to continuous acclaim from students since 1964.
Martin Ashmead inspires a fascination with the realities of structural engineering, “to help people master what seemed beyond their reach.” What can he teach us about passing the torch to a new generation?

Making it personel

What’s the Ashmead philosophy in a nutshell? “Put it like this. I once went to a very boring law lecture. It only livened up when someone said ‘my wife is thinking of leaving me. What do you think I should be doing?’. 

The moral of that story is that people need to have personal reasons for learning anything really well, let alone to a professional standard. You need to intrigue your audience, appeal to curiosity, and fire up people’s natural urge to make a mark."

Martin’s CV surprises those who learn that he left school at 16 (“perfectly normal in the 1950’s”). He went straight into construction, became a Chartered Structural Engineer in 1966, a Fellow of the Institution in 1983, won its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021 and this year became the only member of the profession to be made a Master of the Open University, one of its highest honours. 

He's filled leading roles in structural and civil engineering consultancies, for contractors and multidisciplinary architectural practices. A long stint as Bristol City Council’s Principal Structural Engineer, dealing with (amongst many other things) collapsed buildings taught him a lot about communicating effectively with worried, often stressed-out people. “That helped my teaching because students of all ages often get very anxious about whether they’ll be able to take everything in.”

From getting the cane to taking the class

Just before qualifying as a Chartered Structural Engineer Martin was asked by a member of the college teaching staff if he’d teach two mornings a week. “My immediate reaction was ‘no’, but second thoughts won out and I’ve never regretted it”.

Since then, he’s given talks and lectures in most parts of the country in schools, colleges and universities for over six decades. “There’s a real on joy in passing on what you know."

Martin was thrown in at the deep end without guidance so drew on his own experiences to discover what made a teacher connect with his pupils. “When I was nine anyone in my maths class who missed a 7/10 score was caned on the hand. That method encouraged those already able to cope with maths but terrified those who lacked confidence – 70% of the class got caned."

“It’s those sorts of people, and there’s a lot of them, of whatever age, who need to believe ‘I can do this’. I've always been interested in encouraging people and that means getting them to feel that they're treated as an individual, even in a lecture hall with 200 others."

And that, Martin has seen, applies not only to students but to qualified structural engineers reaching for the next level. 

Intrigue, challenge, inspire.

A happy class learns better and learns faster, and a happy class is one where the teacher sets out to actively seize attention and stimulate minds. 

Intrigue them: Martin often starts a talk with problems rather than answers. “I ask ‘why do we take buildings for granted?’ If you see an airplane in the sky, you think, wow, how does that stay up there? But how often do you go up a staircase and wonder, hey, why doesn’t this fall down?".

Challenge them: “Then I give them a problem to solve, pitched to the level of the class.They think they know how to solve it and want to prove me wrong. I'm happy with that, because now we've got engagement. Much better than starting with a load of facts…they’d be bored in ten minutes. 80% come up with a wrong answer and that’s great because they then want to know more. They try again and I feel unbelievable satisfaction at the change of expression; their sheer delight at getting it right".

Inspire them: “You whet appetites by putting the profession in a wider context. Show structural engineering’s relationship to the real world, how it makes people’s lives safer, more convenient, more comfortable; how it overlaps with law, management, construction, architecture. That’s when you excite imaginations by showing the range and importance of what we do. You need to fire people up because there’s a lot of other career paths open to them."

But never forget those who are struggling. “That means sizing up a group – at whatever educational level - and the different learning abilities. You have to scan the faces to see who’s finding it difficult (and who’s closed down!).

Encourage people to ask questions while your talk is going on; best they ask while something is in their head instead of leaving them to forget it by the end. Don’t cut people down, make them feel they’ve made a contribution. Questions aren’t disruptive if you structure your talk logically. I can usually say “interesting and relevant, in fact we’ll get onto that shortly".

Staying behind to talk is vital. “Give people a chance to come up to you. You can do a lot of encouraging at the tail end!

The point is that you make them feel comfortable because that’s when they really join in."

Mentoring: “Conveying the reality of what we do”

Martin views the profession as providing “fantastic opportunities in any direction you can think of no matter what your background". But realising those opportunities requires more than formal teaching can provide.

“90% of new IStructE members come up through higher education, but those institutions are seldom able to convey the daily reality of what we do, or get across the right attitudes, about how we should treat people as well as how we ought to do our jobs. Values matter and we've got to live up to them at work."

So mentoring is crucial at both educational and early work stages. “Yes, technology means today’s students and starters have a broader range of knowledge than 20 years ago. But that knowledge can be shallower too.

Information Technology (IT) is great but making jobs easier sometimes leads to our understanding things less. Workers becoming more autonomous means fewer people looking over your shoulder, but I remember how those interventions often taught me things that it would have taken years to find out on my own."

Martin urges firms to make room for interns, and for Structural Engineers to join the IStructE’s Mentoring Programme. “Yes, it eats into our free time, but we can’t expect to be paid for everything!  We’re back to the personal touch, where someone with experience asks ‘what do you want to do?  Where do you want to get to?.’  Where you’re not being evaluated or told to perform in front of other people. 

I got a message from an engineer in China the other day who had been with me for work experience. He said he’d got where he was because I’d given him confidence by letting him sit in on meetings, by explaining things as the day went on, and by listening to him. If that doesn’t make it all worthwhile, I don’t know what does!”

A teacher can’t beat listening to his pupils. “Feedback matters,” which is why Martin actively seeks it out, asking classes to rate his performance for content, presentation, interest and giving space to students. The average score over the years has been nine out of ten. He’s been told that ‘your methods of teaching should not only be used for teaching students but for teaching Teachers/Lecturers how to teach'. “Quite an impact statement.

But my favourites are those who say, “we don’t go to sleep in your lessons!” 

Martin Ashmead

Martin Ashmead MUniv CEng FIStructE, has been inspiring students for over 60 years.

Recommended reading:-
‘The making of the man’ can be read in ‘The Structural magazine’  ‘Back to basics’ 13 July 2005
You TubeOpen University Ceremony Saturday 8 October 2022 or view the complete awards ceremony.
Full ceremony 1hr 45 minutes.