What’s the big idea? Radical ways to reshape engineering education
31 January 2017
More effort must go into encouraging students to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)
We are not producing enough engineers or engineering technicians, and those it is producing are typically from a strikingly narrow stratum of society. Not only do we need more engineers, we require a greater diversity of people to become engineers. We also need to help the general public become confident enough to engage with social and political implications of living in a world dominated by technology.
These facts have been well established, yet the problem remains stubbornly intractable. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting to get a different answer. Despite many well-intentioned efforts over the years, the lack of meaningful progress in narrowing the engineering skills gap has been striking.
It is surely time to try something different. Rather than further one-off initiatives, it must be time to consider more structural and integrated reform.
This was the premise underlying the Big Ideas project, conceived in the UK by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and developed with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering. Through a combination of provocative ‘think pieces’ from leading educators, a study of stakeholder attitudes and an international interdisciplinary workshop, the project identified a series of strategic options that, collectively, represent a compelling vision for the future of engineering education in UK schools.
At the heart of this vision lies the need to enhance engineering and technological literacy for all – an essential goal as we enter a world increasingly dominated by technology and facing profound environmental and social challenges that engineering and technology must address.
We need to make structural changes that will enable us to promote engineering as people focused, problem solving and socially beneficial. We also need to emphasise how the objects that define our world are developed and manufactured. Through this, both the economic and social value of engineering can be made manifest in ways that they are currently not.
Big Ideas project
The Big Ideas project offers a vision for how UK engineering and education communities can work together to achieve a step-change. Change is called for on all sides: the engineering community needs to reflect carefully on the narrative it is presenting to young people, particularly those whose background and interests may be quite different from those traditionally associated with engineering, who may have the potential to be successful and creative engineering professionals.
The education system needs to lead change and the education community needs to be supported to be able to adapt, to embed engineering thinking and practice as well as engineering careers information. Education policy-makers have the wherewithal to influence the environment in which these profound changes can be achieved, and they need to generate the momentum to ensure that they happen.
These ideas are not a short-term fix, but represent the foundation for a concerted long-term effort to shift perceptions and behaviours. The aim is to ensure that engineering has the presence it deserves in the UK school education system. This will require many stakeholders to be flexible, open to fresh thinking and willing to innovate.
Progress across all areas will be essential if tangible benefits are to be delivered. It should not be assumed that the goals developed as a result of the stakeholder meetings and outlined in the report, Big Ideas: the future of engineering in schools, hold the complete answer to engineering skills, but unless we challenge these structural issues, we run the risk, simultaneously of reducing our economic competitiveness and letting down the next generation.
Though the future is uncertain, economists, employers and educationalists are all in agreement that having a more highly skilled, technologically literate workforce is the best guarantee of future prosperity.
It is widely recognised that there are specific ways of thinking associated with science, integral to the scientific method. Education in secondary schools has not traditionally placed great emphasis on these ways of thinking, generally focusing instead on the body of knowledge that is the ‘product’ of science.
Engineering is still predominantly defined by its products. In recent years, several organisations have attempted to shift this perspective, focusing more on engineering as an ‘enabling’ discipline and a social one too – providing the capacity to improve the world. More could be done to position engineering as a humanitarian vocation, creating opportunities to make people’s lives better.
This is a crucial way to increase the appeal of engineering to young people, particularly those who are less obviously drawn to the conventional archetype of an engineer but who may otherwise have a real interest in the discipline or associated areas.
Engineering in schools
Engineering has much lower visibility than science in schools, but again the conventional focus has been on products and less so on the methodologies of engineering or the thought processes of engineers. The visibility of engineering could also be enhanced within existing educational structures by the greater use of approaches that develop the ways of thinking characteristic of engineers.
Work as part of the Big Ideas project confirms that these thought processes well reflect perceptions about the habits of mind exhibited by engineers, and that they are good skills to teach young people. Their potential application outside engineering was seen as particularly beneficial.
In particular, aligning engineering with human values and stressing its potential to improve wellbeing could be an effective way to appeal to girls. As well as providing an alternative and more engaging perspective for young people, this shift in emphasis might also have a beneficial effect on practising engineers.
One of the greatest challenges facing engineering in the UK is its lack of visibility in the education system. The fact that engineering is rarely taught as a specific subject is one obvious aspect of this low profile, but more generally there is a perceived bias towards the natural rather than made world in school science teaching.
Introducing engineering explicitly into the school system would be a major challenge. An alternative and perhaps more tractable approach would be to work within existing educational frameworks, to identify ways in which teaching could focus more on the ‘made’ world and on engineering.
A key advantage of this approach is that it would require less fundamental change in the educational system. Indeed, the foundations may already exist in current teaching that focuses on made products. An important goal would be to grow these areas and to reinforce their connections to engineering when they are covered in schools.
Enhancing teachers’ confidence and ability to embed frequent references to engineering and engineering careers within their teaching would not only support their pupils in making choices but also emphasise that, although science and mathematics are more prevalent subjects in schools, in the external world it is engineering and technology that predominate.
Goals of the report
The report outlines key long-term goals, to:
- Promote engineering as a people-focused, problem-solving, socially beneficial discipline;
- Work to enhance the presence of engineering and the ‘made world’ at all stages from primary level upwards;
- Ensure that apprenticeships and other technical pathways not only deliver high quality technicians but also enable individuals to progress to the highest levels of engineering;
- Broaden routes into engineering degree courses by promoting more flexible entry requirements;
- Maintain a broad curriculum for all young people up to the age of 18;
- Shift the emphasis in STEM teaching towards problem-based, contextualised learning;
- Nurture engineering ways of thinking in all young people;
- Create more spaces and opportunities for young people to design and make things particularly by working collaboratively in interdisciplinary groups;
- Use design and technology as a platform for integrating STEM and creative design and for raising the profile of engineering in schools;
- Change the structure of schools education to embed engineering explicitly at all levels.
Clearly, more needs to be done to raise awareness of the diversity and nature of career opportunities in engineering and more thought needs to be given to how these opportunities are portrayed, if they are to strike a chord with currently under-represented groups.
It is vital we do this not just to ensure students are able to make informed choices, but to make sure we have enough people with the right skills to allow us to prosper.
Peter Finegold is the head of education and skills, policy and research with IMechE, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He spoke in 22 Clyde Road earlier this month at an event organised by Engineers Ireland’s Mechanical and Manufacturing Division. This article first appeared in Gas International, the official journal of the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers, and is reproduced with kind permission.