The Open University

For someone who left school at 16 with no desire to study A-Levels, engineer Michael Owen – or Michael Owen BEng (Hons) HNC EngTech AMIMechE to state his full credentials – has a pretty impressive string of letters after his name.

With a natural leaning towards technical subjects (and a long-time fascination with motorcycles), engineering was an instinctive career choice for Michael – but the prospect of spending years poring over books in dusty classrooms to gain the relevant qualifications was not an inviting one.

Michael was keen to start work and gain hands-on experience. So when he was offered an apprenticeship with the Science and Engineering Research Council at Daresbury Laboratory, he saw this as the perfect transition into the world of paid work.

But although Michael relished this exciting opportunity on the engineering frontline, he also knew that if he wanted to excel in his field and stand out from his peers, he would benefit from the right qualifications.

After completing a BTEC HNC during his apprenticeship, Michael soon realised that it was possible to combine academic study with doing the work he loved – and in 2012, he signed up to the BEng degree course at The Open University.

The flexible structure of the OU course not only enabled him to fit in his study around his work commitments, it also promised him a high-quality honours degree recognised by the Institute of Engineering & Technology.

We asked Michael, an engineer at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), to tell us how studying for a BEng with the OU has enhanced his work as an engineer as well as his career prospects – and how being a working engineer enhanced his experience as an undergraduate.

Why did you choose to go straight into the work force instead of taking the academic route of A-Levels and university?

I enjoyed school and I did well in my exams but I wasn’t very focused – I was probably distracted by the usual events of teenage life. Most of my friends were older so they left school a year earlier than me and I felt a bit flat after that. One of my school reports probably summed it up when it said that I was using my intelligence to avoid work!

As a teenager, I loved repairing and restoring bikes, motorcycles and scooters, so I already had an interest in mechanics. I wanted to find a career that combined theory and practice. I left school with 9 GCE O Levels, which qualified me to apply for an engineering apprenticeship and I was lucky enough to land one with the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) at Daresbury Laboratory in Warrington.

The seven years I spent there were fun and informative. In fact, a better learning environment would be difficult to imagine; it provided me with a solid foundation for my future in engineering.

You completed a BTEC HNC during your apprenticeship. How did this tie in with your work at the time?

The use of computers in engineering was in its infancy then – and the skills I developed to operate computer-aided engineering systems were directly transferrable to my workplace. Studying modules like manufacturing technology and materials, together with pure and applied mathematics, all helped to develop my core engineering competences. The HNC also helped me by developing the knowledge to understand how something can be made, which materials to choose and why.

What is your role at CERN?

My current post is in the Engineering Department working on the On-Line Isotope Mass Separator (ISOLDE). The ISOLDE facility uses protons from CERN’s accelerator complex to produce exotic nuclei of most of the elements. These are used for fundamental research in all kinds of scientific fields: nuclear physics, nuclear astrophysics, atomic physics, condensed matter physics, radiobiology, and elementary particle physics.

What prompted you to take a BEng?

Like many people, a big motivation for me is that feeling of progression. Working towards a BEng helped me to develop my professional competence. I wanted to gain a deeper academic understanding of my work projects and contribute at a higher level as my career progresses.

I’m very fortunate to work alongside experienced engineers and physicists who actively encourage my professional development. I’ve spent over 20 years with my sleeves rolled up in a ‘hands-on’ role, which is quite a contrast to some of the University Engineers that I’ve met, who often have limited practical experience. The know-how that I’ve developed over this time really complements the theories that I have learned while I’ve been studying.

Why did you choose to study with the OU?

Ever since I completed my HNC, I’ve wanted to fulfil my academic potential by doing a BEng. I was always aware of the Open University from the old BBC2 television programmes from way back. I started to seriously consider studying with them after meeting several colleagues who had already successfully completed their studies through the OU.

After looking through the OU syllabus, I decided that the BEng (Hons) was particularly appealing because it was recognised and accredited by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). It fulfilled their academic requirements for professional registration as an Incorporated Engineer (IEng). The modular style of learning meant that I could break the degree into manageable sized chunks and progress at my own rate. I proposed my study plan to my supervisors and it was accepted.

How did the OU help to support you through your studies?

I started with a first year mathematics module taught by Mrs Cath Hogan who was based in Geneva. It was a great start to have tutorials in a classroom environment. Cath was an exceptional teacher and helped me to remain motivated in the early days when my study skills were more than a bit rusty. I was deeply saddened when I learnt that she had passed away after suffering with cancer. She supported me a lot when I considered stopping my studies.

Living abroad, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend any further face to face tutorials, but I felt like the OU helped by offering other support structures. I remember discussing a particularly tricky calculus problem with one of my tutors on the telephone during a revision session – his patience was worthy of a knighthood!

The OU offers comprehensive support to all students. I didn’t use them all but there was advice for most problems. This ranged from developing good study-skills through to computer related issues and managing a home / work / life balance. They also offer a careers advisory service and more specific services for disabled students.

How did your time as a student with the OU enhance your work as an engineer at CERN?

I approached my studies with the OU with a positive and open state of mind. Work on the ongoing assignments and contact with students from all backgrounds and abilities helped me to see my life in engineering more objectively. Modules requiring self-analysis seemed to polarise opinion amongst students but I found that they helped me to identify my strengths and weaknesses and assisted me to find areas where improvements could be made. My understanding of the learning process – and in particular my personal use of different learning techniques – still helps me in my professional life.

Studying with the OU also helped me to prioritise and manage my time more effectively – and pushed me to try out in practice things that I’ve learned. One example is where I learned how to develop and build ion sources for nuclear physics. On several occasions, I’ve taught engineers from other institutions how to implement these techniques.

How did your TechEng registration help with your studies?

IMechE professional registration gave me the opportunity to meet and listen to experienced engineers from diverse engineering sectors. Becoming an affiliated student member of IMechE also encouraged me to progress professionally through Career Path Development (CPD) training within the institution, which motivated me in both my studies and my work duties.

For example, in December 2009, I attended the Hawksley lecture ‘Powering the future’. The following year this led me to study the Open University’s module: ‘Energy for a sustainable future’. The inspiration that I received proved to be very beneficial and I passed the course with distinction.

How did working as an engineer at CERN enhance your experience as an undergraduate student?

Access to the CERN library, particular the engineering, computer-aided design and materials books, allowed me to gain deeper comprehension of the subjects I was studying. I would usually spend lunchtime in the CERN library. surrounded by eminent physicists and engineers. I hoped that some of their ‘greatness’ could rub off and help me pass with distinction!

Support and encouragement from my colleagues came in many forms and during my engineering project I was able to build a functioning prototype model. During this module I also developed my use of software for 3D drafting and simple stress analysis techniques.

How did you manage juggling your studies with a high-pressured job?

I’d like to say I was super-organised and did everything to a tight schedule, but that wasn’t the case. I am prone to procrastination as much as the next person (more so if you ask my long suffering girlfriend) and things were sometimes fraught as deadlines loomed. I had to remain flexible and sometimes the workload could be stressful. But by gradually working towards the goal (slow progress is better than no progress, etc.) it was possible to meet most deadlines aided by the occasional extension from a sympathetic tutor or supervisor.

Ironically, the things that were put on standby are more enjoyable to me now that I have more time having finished my studies. The mountains are still there to be climbed and my favourite rivers and lakes are still waiting to be fished.

What effect has your qualification had on your career?

Since graduating with a First-class Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) degree my professional development has led me to take over the responsibilities of a colleague who is a senior engineer in my work section. This allows my more experienced colleague to concentrate on a new project involving the use of radioactive ions for cancer therapy. I’ve also recently been involved in the production of several engineering specifications and the preparation of documents to be used in the call for tender process. And I changed my IMechE registration to associate membership.

What are your plans for the future?

I’ll continue adding to my technical knowledge and seeking new opportunities to enhance my key skills. My main focus is on achieving the competence standard for registration as an Incorporated Engineer. I hope to continue working in a creative team, building things and generating solutions. I consider myself lucky to be able to do this in a secure and supportive environment. I haven’t completely ruled out a postgraduate course yet…It’s addictive this OU business!