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'Focus on creativity, not maths and physics,' to open up engineering

Amit Katwala

(Credit: iStock)
(Credit: iStock)

Engineering has an education problem, but removing barriers to entry and providing mentoring could help, according to experts.

In the UK, 62 % of employers find that many new engineering graduates have significant skills gaps, while 68 % are concerned that the education system will struggle to keep up with the rate of technological change.

According to IET president Jeremy Watson, there should be a radical overhaul of entry into engineering degree courses, with more of a focus on creativity. Speaking at the organisation’s New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education event, he said: “There is an urgent need to get more young people studying engineering, but we’re currently excluding vast numbers of students because they have not formally studied maths and physics.

“This is an outdated view that we need to change. We’re not saying that these subjects aren’t important, but the role of an engineer is about solving creative challenges so we must also harness students’ creativity.

He said that the principles of maths and physics normally covered at A-level could be taught during an engineering degree in a more 'work-ready' way, and that engineering courses should focus on teaching problem solving.


Imagination for 'a better world' 

Watson’s suggestions have been backed by a number of industry bodies, including IMechE, the EPC and WISE. “The perceived need for a rigid set of entry qualifications into engineering study or training, acts as a bottleneck, preventing many highly talented young people from considering engineering. It also forces pupils to make career decisions too soon,” Peter Finegold, head of education and skills in IMechE’s Policy and Research team told Professional Engineering.

“The Institution of Mechanical Engineers set out in its report, ‘Big Ideas: The Future of Engineering in Schools’ how we need to actively promote engineering as a people-focused, problem-solving, socially beneficial and creative discipline.”

Sarah Spurgeon, incoming president of the Engineering Professors Council, agrees. “The academic community of engineers sits at the frontier of creating solutions to the challenges of the real world,” she said. “Now we need to turn our expertise on our own profession to meet the impending skills emergency in this country.

“You need maths and physics to be a good engineer, but these are things we can teach and they are not all you need. We need students with the imagination to dream a better world and the skills to build it.”

WISE, which campaigns for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, said the approach could improve diversity. “WISE is completely supportive of initiatives such as these to increase the diversity of people in engineering careers,” board member and professor Averil MacDonald told Professional Engineering. “I personally have taught on physics degree courses a plumber who went on to be a school Head of Physics, a nurse who then completed an MSc in Physics, and a dyslexic warehouse manager who then completed a PhD.”

She suggested that more universities should offer one-year ‘conversion’ or foundation courses, but said the league table system discourages universities from taking a risk. “If a department takes students with poor initial qualifications this risks them tumbling down the league table even though they add more value to these students who then graduate with good degrees, she said.”

Importance of mentoring

Getting a broader range of people into university may not be enough, however – particularly when it comes to getting more women into STEM careers. In America, women account for more than half of all university students, but hold only 13-33 % of undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering, computing and physical sciences.

A new study published this week by researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that female mentors could help encourage women to stick with engineering majors rather than switching courses or dropping out of university.

The authors randomly paired 150 incoming female engineering students at an American university with female mentors, male mentors or no mentors over the course of a year, with monthly meetings. They found that women mentored by other women felt less anxious and more motivated than those mentored by men. The dropout rate was significantly different too: 18 % of the students with male mentors and 11 % of those with no mentors dropped out, but all of the women who were mentored by women were still in engineering education at the end of the study.

MacDonald from WISE said similar schemes in the UK had seen great success, and should be introduced across the country. “Evidence from UK STEM departments, for example working through the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) scheme, shows that students who are in a minority in any department benefit from additional reassurance that they have a role to play and this then results in them seeking careers in these sectors,” she told Professional Engineering.

Good work placements during an undergraduate career also result in greater likelihood of female students seeking STEM careers, she added. "If we are serious about tapping into the female half of the talent pool then mentoring and work placement schemes should be rolled out nationally.”




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