It’s eighteen minutes into the first signature bake when Italian engineer Giuseppe Dell’Anno breaks out a steel ruler. Calmly, precisely he measures and slices twelve almond, orange blossom and ricotta mini rolls, ensuring each is exactly 8cm.
Engineering and baking are more similar than you might think, says Dell’Anno, who went on to win season 12 of reality TV show the Great British Bake Off.
And he tells Cosmos, the link is even stronger for his speciality, materials engineering.
Before taking time off to write his cookbook, Giuseppe’s Italian Bakes, Dell’Anno was chief engineer of a UK research and development facility, the National Composites Centre. His workshop had “ovens, thermal controllers, autoclaves … all those things that to a baker are bread and butter,” he says.
“What I used to do in my engineering life on a daily basis was to start off with either pellets of thermoplastic materials, or liquid resin and literally bake it off into the final shape.”
“Admittedly, if you over-bake an Airbus wing, it is going to be much more expensive to fix than overbaking a cake,” he says.
Australia is facing its greatest ever engineering skills shortage, according to Engineers Australia. The clean energy transition, major infrastructure projects and emerging sectors like space are increasing demand for engineering skills. Some 50,000 to 100,000 engineers are needed by 2030, just as fewer students, particularly girls, are choosing to enter the profession.
It may sound nutty, but baking, and engineering contestants on shows like Bake Off and Baking Impossible, could be key ingredients in helping solve the workforce crisis by improving awareness and perceptions of engineering, and broadening engagement with STEM.
Bak-ineering a way out of engineering’s identity problem
“In Australia, most people don’t know what engineers do or how they contribute positively to society,” says Jane MacMaster, Chief Engineer at Engineers Australia.
It turns out the biggest barrier behind the dire shortage of women entering the profession is most – about 3 in 4 girls – never even think of engineering as an option, according to research commissioned by Engineers Australia.
TV showcasing engineering is among Engineers Australia’s proposed initiatives to address lack of community awareness, a major factor underpinning the workforce crisis.
“The last engineering show there was on TV was MacGyver,” quips MacMaster.
She says the lack of engineers featured on the small screen – in contrast to the preponderance of lawyers, doctors, police – is an issue often raised with her.
But baking shows are proving to be the rare exception. Dell’Anno isn’t the first engineer to win the wholesome reality baking show. Nuclear researcher and engineer, Dr Rahul Mandal, won Bake Off season 9. Several others have appeared as contestants, including aerospace engineer Andrew Smyth who went on to produce and present the Netflix engineering-baking mash up Baking Impossible.
MacMaster says shows like Baking Impossible can help make engineering more real for people by showcasing key concepts like designing, testing and prototyping, and solving complex problems.
In the Netflix series, cooks and engineers team up to solve so-called ‘baki-neering’ challenges, like constructing edible cake-based robots, outfits, boats and Rube Goldberg machines.
“Engineering ideas and processes feature heavily and it was very entertaining as well. I was smiling, laughing or wincing for the full hour,” she says.
Positive perceptions and patisserie
Women’s participation in engineering is the worst among the STEM professions, making up 16% of graduates, and just 13% of the workforce.
And when it comes to women choosing – or as is more often the case, not choosing – engineering, lack of familiarity is the main factor, followed by negative perceptions of the profession, Engineers Australia research shows. The third key element is poor STEM engagement throughout school.
Dell’Anno says as well as raising awareness, baking can help “demystify the aura of squareness there is around technical people and engineers”.
“People typically think that all we [engineers] do is apply rules very accurately […] Actually, I would say that my job was breaking the rules rather than following them.”
He says creativity, thinking outside of the box was a “massive element” of his work in research and development.
While engineers might see their work as creative, fulfilling and impactful, the broader public rarely view the profession that way.
MacMaster says public perceptions of engineers tend to be narrow and outdated. Most people still think of bridge designers, building constructors or car mechanics, ideas which don’t capture the full breadth of the profession.
Engineers Australia research shows male-dominated (84%) and challenging (70%) are the two most common attributes associated with engineering. Women are three times more likely to consider engineering “boring” than “exciting”.
Thanks to his handy ruler, Dell’Anno’s cakes, biscuits and pastries are certainly “neat as a pin”, as judge Prue Leith says. And in true engineering style, he reveals to Cosmos that instead of a recipe book, he keeps his recipes in an excel spreadsheet.
“I divide the amounts and the ingredients, so that I can then scale it up, scale it down. I can change things without altering the ratios. You know, I automate the hell out of it.”
Yet his bakes are delicate, dainty and soft-hued, a sweet counterpoint to engineering’s masculine stereotype.
And in Baking Impossible, finalists Cindy and Taylor flaunt their fun and whimsical approach to engineering creating a robotic watermelon baby, avant garde raspberry dress and a ‘pickle-up truck’ crash test vehicle.
Cake in the classroom
Emeritus professor Deborah Corrigan tells Cosmos she is “quite famous for teaching STEM through baking a chocolate cake”.
Corrigan is an expert science educator who has led research into the gender gap in engineering.
She says engineer-turned-baker Kate Reid, owner of Lune Croissanterie, provides a good example of applying an engineering mindset – analytical, process driven, problem solving – to the baking challenge of making croissants commercially.
Reid says, “studying engineering not only taught me the very technical things about designing a Formula 1 car, but it taught me how to think, how to break down problems, how to experiment and hone and improve some things,” on ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living.
Corrigan advocates teaching STEM skills, particularly engineering concepts, through “Ill-structured problems” involving multiple layers and many possible solutions. Using a familiar context, like baking a cake, can help bring out the engineering elements – designing, testing, prototyping, systems thinking.
“If you want to change engineering, you actually have to sort of bring it into the realm of the every day […] And for young kids, that’s got to be more than robots,” she says.
Recipes can involve multiple layers: what ingredients to use, their measurements and ratios. Which container to use, and concepts like process monitoring and heat transfer.
The University of Washington even teaches first year students core engineering concepts through an award-winning course called ‘Kitchen Engineering’. The concept was created by chemical engineering professors who argue it levels the playing field, and doesn’t rely on high tech 3D printers or digital devices.
“The kitchen is the first laboratory most of us are exposed to, and it’s a great place to explore and introduce engineering concepts,” UoW professor Nate Sniadecki says.
It’s easy to speak engineering when you’ve got cake
MacMaster says teaching engineering through baking potentially has broad appeal, but she emphasises the importance of making the link explicit.
“What concerns me is that teachers are teaching engineering ideas and concepts and kids are learning them. But they’re not linking it to engineering, because they’ve decided for whatever reason to use other words, technology or science.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. But if we’re trying to boost the number of engineers, at some point in the early school years we need to increase familiarity with engineering […] we need to name it.”
MacMaster wants to see more conversations about engineering.
“We’ve got nearly 350,000 engineers in Australia, if we all have a conversation once a month, imagine how many conversations we could be having about engineering.”
Dell’Anno says conversations about engineering tend to work better with a nice batch of very good quality biscuits, a cake or some muffins.
“If you don’t have anything to discuss, from an engineering perspective, at least you can discuss how good or bad the biscuits are.”