An Interview with Dr Michael Myers OAM

Founder and Executive Chairman, Re-Engineering Australia Foundation

Dr Michael Myers' present adventure began in 1998. "I've got four daughters," he explains at his offices on an industrial estate in Castle Hill. "When the first three were going to the same high school which I could see out of my window, I felt guilty.

"I ran my own engineering firm, Concentric Asia Pacific. I had 65 engineers running around all over the place working on projects for the Boeing 787, for Toyota and on the Holden Monaro. I was flat out, but I still felt guilty that I had never done anything for the school. So I went to see the headmaster and said: 'Is there anything I can do?'"

"He told me there was a bunch of kids who met every Monday after school to build mileage marathon cars." Which are what, exactly? "A vehicle designed to travel as far as it possibly can on the least amount of fuel. My first thought was: these are 15 year old kids. It will be billy carts and simple stuff. I'll blow them out of the water."

"But when I turned up for that first Monday, the students rolled out a carbon fibre monocoque car. And they already held the world record at 3200 Miles per gallon of petrol. I turned to one of the kids and said, 'How did you come up with something as fantastic as this?' The only response I received was, 'No-one said we couldn't.'"

"I realised then that if those kids could do all this without any technology, what could they achieve if we gave them access to the best technology in the world? In a sense, that's where the Re-Engineering Australia Foundation began."

Today around half a million Australian students between the ages of 12 and 18 have taken part in Re-Engineering Australia's not-for-profit school projects, designed to improve the nation's future interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and the related skills needed to sell that talent to the rest of the world.

But back in 1998, Myers's original idea following his experience at his daughters' high school was to offer a $100,000 prize to Australian university engineering students prepared to enter a national competition to develop an innovative design. No limit was put on what was to be designed.

Myers had done his sums. Only 28 Australian universities offered engineering courses, "so I realised that meant only having to write 28 letters." Yet the immediate response from those universities was: "What's the catch?"

What's the catch?

Myers replied that there was no catch. Just an opportunity for engineering students to show what they could achieve. Only a handful of universities took part, and there was a catch: the $100,000 had to be spent on sending the winning team overseas to experience how engineering was regarded internationally. Myers and his fellow judge, Jack Knight, co-founder of the Sinclair Knight Merz Group, "were knocked out by the entries. We couldn't believe how sophisticated they were."

"But we also realised we were (intervening) too late. These students had already made the decision to study engineering. We needed to attract school-age children to go into engineering." Why? "I was employing engineers all the time. But I could see not enough of them were coming through the education system. In Australia we turn out around 5000 engineering graduates each year from Australian universities. China produces hundreds of thousands each year."

"The average age of teachers taking engineering subjects in Australian schools is now 45-50. They are all disappearing and no-one is coming through to teach design and technology courses. That's because kids today are ignoring science, maths and engineering for 'softer subjects' which offer easier HSC results."

Determined to try and reverse the trend, Myers discovered what he was looking for while in the UK on Concentric business: a schools project based around the construction of a model drag racing car, a concept originally developed by the Boy Scouts of America.

"The people in Denford Ltd in the UK had taken a simple concept and added the technology making it much more sophisticated and built educational outcomes into the process of designing and manufacturing the cars," Myers recalls. "I told them it was a great program and that we'd like to adapt if for Australia. But since dragsters mean nothing to Australian kids, I said let's make it look like a Formula 1 instead."

So began Re-Engineering Australia's annual high school competition, which has been adopted so far by around 300 schools, TAFE's and Universities across the nation. Under the guidance of a teacher, boys and girls team up to build a model Formula 1 car, explaining in a glossy 20 page portfolio the engineering decisions they have made during construction. The portfolio brings together a host of cross-curricula skills; not just maths, science, design and technology but English, graphics, magazine layout and project management. Even debating and public speaking skills come into the equation when the schools go into competition against each other.

Engadine High School in NSW is the current Australian Champion. The school's Motion Racing team won the F1 in Schools Technology Challenge National Final at Melbourne's Aviation Show in March 2013 and will now represent Australia against 40 other countries in the World Finals in Texas in November.

"We're the current world champions," Myers says proudly. "And we were also world champions in 2011." Myers, admittedly, had a head start when it came to studying engineering. His father was a toolmaker who subsequently founded his own business. "Engineering was in my blood," Myers admits. "Before I was ten I could weld every conceivable piece of metal on the factory floor."

And yet education has never been easy for Myers. When asked why he chose to study engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney on a sandwich course for six years in the 1970s, Myers volunteers an unexpected answer. "The truth is that I'm an extreme dyslexic, though I didn't find that out until I was in my 40s," he says. "As a result, I failed English every year at school. I topped my school in maths and science, but I couldn't read or write. "UTS at the time was the only university in Sydney that would accept you without a pass in English. And it offered a sandwich course - five months when we could study and party hard, and seven months spent in the factory, working hard.

"In retrospect that was the best option for me. There's nothing like learning stuff in the lecture room, then going into the factory and having the toolmakers kick the crap out of you when they thought you were bullshitting. They certainly helped me bring all that university learning back to reality."

Even though university must have been a nightmare for someone who was classed as illiterate, Myers not only graduated but went on to found his own company, Concentric Asia Pacific, before his 30th birthday. "I didn't discover I was dyslexic until I was in my 40s," Myers says. "I had an uncle who was dyslexic and yet had still become a Professor of Geophysics at Macquarie University and a renowned volcanologist."

"I was talking to him one day and asked about the symptoms of dyslexia. I was shocked because all the things he listed I had suffered." Myers immediately had himself tested at a Sydney University specialist clinic. When the results came back, "they confirmed I was an extreme dyslexic who - according to the diagnosis would never be able to make it through high school". But by that time he had not only had a degree in Engineering but had also completed an MBA at Macquarie University.

"They told me that on the dyslexic scale I was in the same category as Kerry Packer, Kerry Stokes and Einstein, which I thought was good company to keep." Fired up, Myers worked on learning to read by the time he was 50, though it continues to be the case that "I can read something, then re-read it and it will have changed completely. My 12 year old daughter can read much better that I can."

For all the travails it has caused in his life, Myers remains sanguine about his affliction. "Dyslexia is not a disadvantage," he insists. "It is a gift. A dyslexic doesn't pick up information by reading. We pick it up through other senses. I can absorb data about a problem by listening. I can have a problem solved while others are still searching for which book to look in for an answer. I've always been able to see solutions very quickly. I passed my degree at UTS and my MBA at Macquarie by working off my memory, what I heard in class and what I learnt from the people I worked with."

As for his doctorate from the University of South Australia in 2012, "I probably wrote my thesis 157 times before I got it right. I know what I am saying but it comes out all wrong if I try to put in in words and on the page." Having said that, Myers admits to never having been able to recall names, even those of good friends he has known for years. "I even forget my wife's name sometimes," he jokes (it's Toni). "If she had a number, I'd remember it straight away."

When Myers launched Re-Engineering Australia Foundation 15 years ago, it was as an adjunct to his main business, Concentric, which "supplied high-end Computer-Aided Engineering Technology to people who build trains, planes and automobiles". He'd created Concentric in 1983 at the very beginning of a boom in Computer-Aided Design (CAD). Much of his business was built around the use of three-dimensional computer technologies to design, create and solve complex engineering problems. "As a dyslexic, I found three-dimensional space very easy to deal with," Myers explains.

One of the most interesting projects we began working on the early 90's involved working with the Maxillio Cranio-Facial unit at Adelaide Hospital which specialised in reconstructive facial surgery. This ranged from operating on children born with facial deformities through to the victims of car crashes who had suffered terrible skull injuries. Concentric worked off medical scans to build 3D computer models of the victim's heads. From these models we would Rapid Prototyped models of the sculls so that the doctors could practice their surgery prior to the operations. We also manufactured precise titanium plates from these 3D models which the surgeon could implant directly into the patient dramatically reducing the surgery and recovery times.

At the same time, Concentric was dealing with such international names as Boeing, Toyota, Holden and various other companies around Asia and the Pacific. But in 2009 Concentric fell victim of the Global Financial Crisis and a lack of support from Australian Banks.

Now 59 and temporarily resting from competitive water polo following a second hip replacement, Myers focuses all his considerable talents on his Re-Engineering Australia Foundation.

Attracting girls to engineering

A key ambition is to increase the percentage of girls going into engineering. "At the moment, 38 per cent of the kids going through our program are girls," he explains. "Our goal is to get this to at least 50 per cent."

His main motivation in investing six years doing his doctorate on "Understanding the Motivational Drivers of Children's Career Decision Choices" at the University of South Australia (again in sandwich course format) was to gain an understanding of why boys and girls make the career decisions they do, and what can be done to persuade them engineering could be an option.

The results of the research highlighted that our understanding of how we should be working with boys and girls is all wrong. The analogy of giving boys the Lego and leaving them alone in the corner and giving the girls that dolls is all back to front.

"Contrary to popular belief, boys continually seek out human contact," he says. "Boys learn by apprenticeship, by watching and doing. They also make all their decisions by the time they are 14, what car they will like, which football team they will follow, what job they will have and if they will take up drugs. Boys are poor managers but great innovators.

"Girls, on the other hand, don't seek human contact and don't respond to role models like boys. The driver for girls is a developed understanding of the complexity of a situation so they can manage it. As a result girls are genetically wired to make great project managers. Yet women tend to be bad innovators because, from their perspective, innovation is an unplanned process."

So of his four daughters, how many have gone into engineering? The three eldest, he laughs, have gone into accountancy, real estate and marketing. But he has high hopes of the youngest, Sophie, 12. At the moment she wants to be an architect.

Words: Steve Meacham, March 2013