Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education

In this report we describe a survey of values and beliefs, attitudes and preferences of a representative sample of 1,500 UK citizens aged 11 to 19.

The results show that adolescents divide themselves broadly into five categories, determined by their values as well as their reactions to engineering as a subject and as a potential career.

The research within this report raises questions about whether we should replace the current ‘be like me’ approach with programmes that take difference into account. It compels us to explore how it might be possible to retain the creative talents and innovative abilities of many young people who do not fit the obvious engineering archetype.

It is plausible that a more directed approach to science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM) engagement could be undertaken to encourage young people to choose a STEM career path, focusing on each of the five categories (‘Tribes’) where the likelihood of conversion is greatest.

A common strategy would be to concentrate resources on Tribes that have the skills and interest but may need a small push in the direction to heighten their confidence and staying power. Meanwhile, we still need to maintain the interest of the already committed, and help keep engineering in mind.

Key findings

  • There are five broad categories (Tribes) of adolescent attitudes to STEM within the nations of the UK, with each Tribe internally demonstrating shared values and beliefs, as well as similar attitudes to school, family and work
  • Two of the Tribes, ‘STEM Devotees’ and ‘Social Artists’, are present in similar proportions across all ages. These Tribes express very different attitudes and ambitions, yet both appear more focused in their goals than other Tribes
  • The three remaining (smaller) Tribes are found across different age groups, although the size of each Tribe is variable at different age stages
  • The ‘Enthused Unfocused’ Tribe emerge as a potentially valuable source of engineering talent. They are passionate about STEM but lack confidence to achieve success in the subjects
  • ‘Social Artists’ are a large, female-dominated and creative section of the population who seemingly have relatively little affinity with STEM. Their rejection of STEM is mainly driven by absence of interest rather than lack of confidence. ‘Social Artists’ are the second largest and a potentially influential Tribe
  • The ‘Individualists’ are independent innovators and future entrepreneurs. Thought they value creativity and consider it evident in engineering, they do not see engineering as being for them
  • The ‘Less Engaged’ Tribe reflect a section of the school-age population who are relatively less connected to school and appear to have lower interest in wider social values, in comparison to the other Tribes
  • Technology appeals overall to some Tribes more than others. Though there are clear differences in the profile of the technologies that appeal to individual Tribes, greater disparity is evident between the interests expressed by young women and men within the same Tribe (girls in all Tribes find most technology less appealing than boys)

Key recommendations

  1. There is no single best practice in teaching students or inspiring their interest. For engineering, different approaches are needed for five distinct audiences. Government, teachers, industry and STEM organisations must take into account young people’s diverse values and attitudes, when developing programmes, courses and activities, if we are to significantly increase numbers to desired levels.
  2. A significant minority of school students are enthusiastic about engineering but lacks confidence to pursue the subject. Schools and outreach providers should actively identify and support these young people to build up their resilience and maintain their passion.
  3. We should select a broad range of modern technologies and contexts to illustrate the diverse nature of engineering. Young women, for example, tend to have greater affinity with engineering connected to design, medicine, sports, information, environment, agriculture and construction. This should be reflected in how engineering is presented to them.
  4. Adolescents currently have little exposure to engineering within schools so have few opportunities to look beyond outdated archetypes of the subject. UK government education departments should ensure that engineering features prominently and explicitly in the curriculum to allow each young person to see the connection between their individual capabilities, interests and values, and future career opportunities.
  5. This work offers a national snapshot of attitudes to engineering and technology within a specific age group. The study should be repeated every 3-4 years to gauge how the combination of initiatives and interventions has changed perceptions of STEM and engineering and hence the supply of skilled people needed to grow the UK economy


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