It’s often said that ‘you cannot be what you cannot see,’ and children don’t generally see engineers working in the way they would see a doctor or a teacher or even a YouTuber or pop star, which many children today aspire to be. If you are an engineer you probably knew one or at least understood what an engineer was from a young age. This would most likely have been through a member of your family who worked in engineering and not through being exposed to the subject at school.
The current national curriculum, which gives schools and teachers the statutory guidance regarding what is taught in schools, does not include any engineering content within the core curriculum at primary and secondary levels.
In a recent poll by NMITE (New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering), a higher education institution based in Hereford, and the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), almost two thirds of engineering academics felt that engineering should be made more visible in schools to “elevate the status of engineering”.
As Sarah Peers, head of academic skills at NMITE, says: “It’s clear that more needs to be done to help inform young people about engineering as an option, earlier in their learning journey.”
Much has been made in recent years of the engineering skills gap. Engineering UK estimates that the country needs to produce 182,000 engineers and skilled technicians a year, though currently there is an annual shortfall of 69,000. An obvious means of helping plug this gap is ensuring there is a robust pipeline of young people heading towards an engineering career.
Professional engineering institutions are all too aware of this and campaign to increase the visibility of engineering in schools. IMechE runs schemes designed to raise the profile of engineering, including a STEM Ambassador programme and a 3D printer loan scheme. In 2022, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) led a series of roundtable meetings with more than 120 representatives from industry, academia, education, government and STEM providers. The recommendations formed a report called Engineering Kids’ Futures, co-signed by several representatives of IMechE.
David Lakin, IET head of education, says: “If we look at the primary school curriculum, the word engineer or engineering is only mentioned a handful of times. While children do learn about science and maths, the connection to engineering – the link between these subjects, their purpose and application to the world in which we live – is not being made. The definition of engineering is the application of science and yet the current science curriculum doesn’t mention engineering. Put simply, we need to embed engineering into the mainstream curriculum and that is what the report is calling on government to do.”
Planting the seed
Considering that children start making decisions about what they want to be from as young as seven, it makes sense to plant the engineering seed at primary-school level, and then allow it grow through to secondary school. The current curriculum is very full and there is a lot of pressure already on teachers to deliver everything within it and so it’s not practical to simply introduce engineering as a subject into an already packed curriculum. As such, the IET’s top recommendation from the report is a complete review of the national curriculum to integrate the teaching of engineering.
While the argument could be that there are many STEM providers involved in STEM outreach, from small charity organisations through to large professional engineering institutions, the issue is that it does not necessarily reach all children as these programmes are often delivered outside school hours. Additionally, these STEM programmes may only appeal to children who are already thinking about engineering or show an aptitude in the subject.
Those outside the ‘STEM bubble’ may not get exposed to engineering or perhaps already have a negative perception about the subject based on stereotypes. For instance, it may be seen as a job for boys or as dirty work done in a factory. This means those children are quick to dismiss engineering as a career for them.
As a result, the formal teaching of engineering as part of the school curriculum is the best approach to expose all children to the subject, and prove that it’s an exciting and creative career for everyone.
However, any review of the curriculum is not likely to happen in the near future. A short-term solution is for STEM providers to support schools by mapping activities and resources to the current curriculum. For instance, STEMAZING, a social enterprise founded in 2020 by former mechanical engineer Alexandra Knight, delivers STEM sessions to primary-school children during school hours through a cohort of female engineers who have been through the STEMAZING Inspiration Academy.
Knight explains: “It is important to connect learning to life. In our STEMAZING Kids Experiments we relate what we are doing to the curriculum and also link it to real-world applications of engineering. For instance, in one of our sessions we expose the children to energy transfer through helping them make their own potential energy poppers out of a toilet roll and a balloon that then launches mini-marshmallows all over the classroom. We then link that to energy transfer in the real world, such as wind turbines that transfer energy into electricity.
“These sessions are a success because we tick a lot of boxes. The kids are excited because they have a fun thing to take home. It goes down well with the teachers because we’ve linked it into the curriculum. And for us, as female engineers, we get to showcase not only engineering and link it to something kids care about, which is protecting our planet, but also showcase visible female engineering role models,” she adds.
Importantly, these STEMAZING sessions are also not a “one and done”, as Knight puts it. Instead they are a six-week programme of weekly sessions that are either delivered via Zoom into the classroom or in person. “Collectively we have delivered over 80,000 STEMAZING Kids Experiments to primary-school children in predominantly under-represented areas of the UK, and we’ll be hitting 100,000 soon. While it takes more commitment to deliver a programme of sessions, it does make more of a difference if you offer a programme of sessions and have that regular engagement with the children rather than just a one-off visit,” says Knight.
However, even if a young person is inspired during their primary-school education to follow engineering, when they get to secondary school there is no engineering on the core curriculum other than maths and physics, which have traditionally been mandatory at A-level if a student wishes to pursue engineering at university. However, certain higher education institutions are now going against that established grain. For instance, NMITE accepts students on its engineering degree courses who do not have maths and physics at A-level.
NMITE’s Peers says: “Too few students, particularly girls, take maths and physics at sixth form for various reasons, which means that there are potential engineers amongst them who immediately are diverted away from an engineering career path. We remove that barrier by accepting them without those subjects. Our view at NMITE is that you certainly need a grounding in maths and physics to be an engineer but not to the level you are examined in it at school. The way we teach maths at NMITE is applying it to help solve real problems.”
The obvious place for engineering at secondary school is within the design and technology (D&T) curriculum. Indeed, an overhaul of the D&T curriculum is one of the other key recommendations within the IET report as D&T has for many years struggled to establish itself as a rigorous and aspirational subject. The report recommends that not only should D&T include a greater emphasis on engineering but that the status of D&T itself should be increased.
Lakin says: “D&T is the closest aligned subject to engineering at secondary school but currently it’s just not relevant because it’s teaching young people how to make bird boxes and bookshelves. It needs to move on and include current and new technologies and get students to work on real-life problems.
“So as well as refreshing the D&T curriculum another recommendation in the report is to include it in the EBacc suite of qualifications, where it will sit alongside subjects including science, computer science, geography, history and languages, as this will help address the massive decline of students studying D&T and encourage schools to deliver it.”
While these recommendations look very good on paper and have garnered a great deal of support from the engineering community, with many organisations and individuals endorsing the report, it will take government to put any recommendations into practice and that will certainly not happen overnight. With that in mind, how can schools right now increase the visibility of engineering?
Farah Khan, a science teacher and STEAM coordinator, who has worked in secondary science and STEM education in London for 22 years, says that within her school engineering is promoted through a STEAM enrichment programme and events. Through these, as well as through many links with engineering outreach organisations, she is able to bring engineering to the students.
“Our students know what an engineer is and the different education and pathways they can follow. They know that an engineer is a problem solver and how the work of engineers impacts the wider global society in valuable ways. We have several students who have gone onto engineering for their degree pathways and several more aspiring engineers coming up through our younger cohort,” says Khan.
Carrot and stick
However, this approach to introducing young people to engineering takes a dedicated teacher like Khan because she is under no obligation according to the school curriculum to do so. As Lakin says, “At the moment, we have a carrot-and-stick approach. We’ve got lots of carrots in the form of all the wonderful STEM initiatives and programmes. But we’re relying on the really good teachers going above and beyond to be involved in those and running them within their schools.
“Whereas, if we had the stick approach where government makes engineering mandatory as part of the curriculum, and also supports teachers by offering some sort of training in engineering, then we’re confident that would help change perceptions and we will start seeing more young people pursue engineering-related careers.”
Another way of increasing visibility in schools, according to teachers, is to get more engineers from industry supporting schools. Khan says: “The short-term goal of getting more engineers into schools for free workshops/events, offering schools the opportunity to take their students on free engineering events/trips goes a long way and has an incredible impact on increasing the visibility of engineering in schools. Schools face budget constraints so free of cost is really helpful in offering accessibility to students from all backgrounds, but especially from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
This sentiment is echoed by Katey Dale, a year-three teacher and science lead at a primary school in North East England, who, while actively encouraging the mention of a STEM profession in each unit in the curriculum, is definitely open to visits from engineering professionals to inspire the children. “It would be good to be able to find more opportunities for engineers from all areas of the curriculum to visit us in school. We had STEMAZING in recently for a session with the children and it was great for engineering to be demonstrated as the background to a fun activity. They loved it,” says Dale.
It’s up to government to make engineering more visible in the school curriculum. In the meantime the engineering sector can play its part in increasing visibility and helping elevate the status of engineering by working with schools.
If we want to see more engineers enter the workforce, then arguably we need to be the change. Investing time and resources now into the future pipeline will only help plug the ever-growing skills gap we would otherwise face.
Are you up to date on the latest advances in decarbonisation and net zero? To make sure you are, attend the Sustainability in Engineering webinar series from Professional Engineering and IMechE (25-29 September). Register for free now.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.