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Mainstreaming engineering

Dr Ioannis Miaoulis

Engineering was excluded from schools’ core curriculum for largely historical reasons. It is time this anomaly was corrected, says Dr Ioannis Miaoulis.

When Charles Elliott and his ‘Committee of Ten’ developed the first US schools curriculum in 1893, they deliberately omitted subjects they envisaged young people would learn at home.

Engineering, at that point predominantly agricultural engineering, was one such subject. Furthermore, Elliott was no advocate of practical subjects – he was responsible for closing Harvard’s engineering department. Some 120 years on, we are still living with the consequences of those decisions.

Schools are tasked with providing young people with an understanding of the world around them. But they are overwhelmingly taught about the natural world – despite the fact that the modern world is dominated by ‘unnatural’ objects, the manufactured products of human ingenuity and invention.

While classes are devoted to volcanoes and the reproductive organs of daffodils, schools education for the most part wilfully ignores the things that young people encounter and rely on every day.

Does this matter? Undoubtedly. For a start, technological literacy is a fundamental aspect of basic literacy – how can people be considered literate without even a basic understanding of how 95% or so of their environment was made or works?

Furthermore, engineering has many advantages in an education setting. It promotes problem-solving skills and project-based learning, fostering team-working abilities. Crucially, it can make science and mathematics less abstract and more relevant – helping to counter the shift away from such subjects in early adolescence as students question the relevance of such subjects to their everyday lives.

A greater awareness of what engineering actually is – and engineering currently has a major identity problem, at least in part because young people have little exposure to the subject, unless they have an engineer in the family – would encourage more people to consider it as a career.

What can be done about engineering’s omission from the core curriculum? Changing something as deep-seated is a profound challenge, particularly as subject specialists see their own areas as crucial and, perhaps inevitably, fight their own corners rather than considering what might be most beneficial for young people or society more broadly.

In the USA, individual states dictate what is taught in schools. In the 1990s, when I was at Tufts University, I was appointed by the Board of Education in Massachusetts to a committee rewriting the state’s curriculum framework and learning standards for K-12 education (i.e. spanning primary and secondary levels), and had the opportunity to make the case for engineering. In 2000, Massachusetts became the first state to adopt technology/engineering standards and to make them part of the state’s assessment.

The approach we took was to focus on stories that engaged students and provided a context in which learning could be applied. Science and maths ceased to be abstract concepts that needed to be learned and regurgitated in tests and became tools that enabled real problems to be solved. We have been careful to make the stories people-focused and inclusive – women, people with disabilities and minority ethnic groups are all well-represented.

Implementation in Massachusetts was a challenge, with some vested interests unenthusiastic about a new kid on the block eating into their curriculum time, and some school leaders fretting about resource implications. Strong political commitment and leadership from the commissioner of education ensured that the new standards survived.

With no national structures, US educational systems have to be modernised state by state. In recent years, we have been able to develop national standards that have begun to be adopted by other states, following Massachusetts’ lead.

It has been a slow process, but real progress is being made. We have reached 8 million children between the ages of 5 and 18, and the numbers are steadily increasing.

No one would consider a schools education satisfactory if it omitted English, science or mathematics. It is time we erased Elliott’s legacy and ensured that the same is true of engineering.

Dr Ioannis (Yannis) Miaoulis is president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, USA, and formerly Dean of the School of Engineering, Tufts University. In 2004, Dr Miaoulis spearheaded the creation of the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL) at the Museum of Science, which aims to enhance knowledge of engineering and technology for people of all ages and to inspire the next generation of engineers, inventors and scientists. The NCTL has played a lead role in developing educational standards and assessments for engineering, developing resources and supporting teachers’ professional development.

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