It is generally acknowledged that the proportion of the future workforce with engineering and other STEM skills will significantly determine the UK’s future economic success. Yet the low visibility of engineering in our schools means that the nation is heavily reliant on a narrow cadre of young people, often from families with engineering heritage, to become the nation’s industrialists, manufacturers, innovators and designers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a technically-skilled workforce from more diverse backgrounds and with a wider range of interests and talents.
There have been a plethora of reports extolling the virtues of education for engineering in secondary schools in recent years. The sad fact is that they have made very little difference to the status of subjects that support education for engineering and the numbers of young people studying named engineering courses at schools has remained low. One can but hope that the new report from the Institution Of Mechanical Engineers, “We think it is important but we don’t quite know what it is” The culture of engineering in schools will not suffer the same fate.
The report is the culmination of two research studies that explored perceptions and experience of engineering in secondary school education. The first study sought to understand how 11-14 year old pupils, their parents, teachers, school governors and school leaders, frame engineering. The second presented a deeper engagement with engineering through the experience of post-16 students, participating in bespoke engineering debating competitions run jointly by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Ideas. This report calls on Government, education practitioners and the engineering community to act together to ensure that more young people discover what engineering is, both as a creative intellectual process and a rich source of future career opportunity.
The report makes four recommendations
- As part of its industrial strategy, Government should situate engineering at the heart of schools education by:
- Setting up a working group of leading educationalists and other stakeholders to review and report on innovative ways to integrate engineering into young people’s education
- Appointing a nationally respected Schools Engineering Champion to provide a channel of communication between schools, Government and industry, and to advocate the wider cultural value of greater technological literacy alongside the economic rationale for investing in skills to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
- National Education Departments should begin this process by ensuring that engineering is integral to classroom learning by:
- Advocating curricula that better reflect the importance of the made world to modern society, and make explicit reference to the engineering applications of science, mathematics, and design and technology
- Promoting approaches to teaching that emphasise and value engineering ‘thinking skills’ and problem-based learning
- Individual schools should adopt an engineering vision and strategy, with support from local employers and national governors’ associations, which would include:
- Appointing a member of the school senior leadership team as an Engineering & Industry Leader to establish and communicate a vision for the school and to drive change
- Appointing a dedicated Industry School Governor to work alongside and advise the Engineering & Industry Leader, and to embed employer relationships in school governance
- Implementing a robust careers strategy such as the benchmarks set out in The Gatsby Foundation’s Good Career Guidance report, with special emphasis on embedding careers awareness in the curriculum
- The engineering community should present a unified narrative around engineering that will be attractive and relevant to a wider range of students by:
- Stressing the creative problem-solving nature of engineering, its social benefits and relevance to individuals
- Providing opportunities for students to take part in activities that explore the political, societal and ethical aspects of technology.
For those of us who support education for engineering these recommendations will seem eminently sensible and that the various bodies charged with taking them forward should do just that. But will this be the case? Who will act as agent provocateur with those agencies and organisations called upon to take action to ensure that this report, like so many before it, does not sink into oblivion? So I’m asking that Peter Finegold, the Head of Education and Skills at the IMechE uses his influence and that of the engineering community to galvanise action with regard to Recommendations 1 and 2. Clearly all the professional engineering institutions, the Royal Academy of Engineering and employers have their parts to play with regard to Recommendation 4 although I think it will be necessary to identify a focus for this support if it is to be effective. As to Recommendation 3 I think design & technology departments in individual schools can and should support an engineering vision and strategy. Readers will have noted that I have used the term ‘education for engineering’ not ‘engineering education’. I firmly believe that teaching young people design & technology at school is much more likely to open their eyes to worthwhile technical careers in general as well as engineering in particular than named engineering courses. Such teaching will not only predispose some young people to consider a career in engineering but will give all young people studying the subject a positive attitude towards and appreciation of the contribution designers, technologists and engineers make to our society.
The report argues that ‘the made world’ should have a much higher profile in the school curriculum. In response, my message is simple – if we want more young people to understand the made world and engage in STEM careers then we need to “BIG UP” design & technology and make sure the new GCSE is a huge success.
As always comments welcome and I’ll be happy to forward these to Peter at theIMechE.