Inspiring start

The trick is to catch them early! An engineering career could start in the very early years and the Primary Engineer programme aims to provide this early spark. Tim Fryer spoke to the scheme's founder Susan Scurlock to find out how engineering companies can get involved.

Our cover story this month looks at the various attempts to improve the pipeline of engineers, as we are suffering from a shortage that is damaging the sector and the economy. Most of these attempts are aimed at encouraging children to take physics and maths at GCSE, then again at A level, and then go onto to university to study engineering. All laudable, but is it the classic case of taking the horse to water? We have to make the water something they want to drink.

Primary Engineer aims to do just that. Susan Scurlock, Primary Engineer's founder and CEO, believes waiting until secondary school is a mistake. She said: "All great engineers started off in primary school; that's the bottom line.If you don't start talking to the primary schools about engineering, forget it because you'll always be on the back foot later on. The earlier you talk to children about engineering, the earlier you get them involved in practical matters of science, the better they do at school, the more engaged they are, the better their aspirations.That's what it's all about."

Last year Primary Engineer worked with 33,000 children and trained 1000 teachers, all involved in a variety of projects that relate maths and science to engineering. It runs in every year of primary school and each year has a different challenge. It even has designed a course for nursery school children, and Scurlock commented: "They actually remember more about those activities than anything else you do with them, and that's a really important thing.So even though we started with kids at two and three, it's an exciting place to be."

A key thing is that the project is sustainable. It is the teachers that are trained so that they can continue to deliver it year on year. It has allowed real technical skills to emerge amongst the young people, some are designing products in SolidWorks for example.

"We have no problem with girls thinking they can be engineers," claimed Scurlock, "because nobody's told them they can't be. It's only when they get to secondary, or maybe later, they are told they can't be.But here, girls are as engaged as boys.

"The inventiveness in children is just astronomic and when you look at the number of girls that excel at this it's also really incredible. We need more girls in engineering, but not to make the numbers up, it's that girls bring a different perspective and that's what's needed in engineering.It's not about numbers; it's about getting that diversity."

Examples of this inventiveness – and there are 5500 inventions already submitted this year by primary school children - have been such things as a locking system on a car that doesn't allow it to be driven if it senses alcohol on the driver's breath; another car had prisms on the headlights to detect black ice; an Alzheimer's hat invented by one girl who wanted to constantly remind her granddad what to do; and a Calpol lolly, designed by a girl looking for a better way for her sister to take medicine.

Of course, the big problem is keeping children engaged and Primary Engineer has an innovative solution to that.

"We decided to have an Institution of Primary Engineers and an Institution of Secondary Engineers, just like the professional engineering Institutions," explained Scurlock. "To become a professional chartered engineer you have to undertake professional competencies that go through personal skills, team-working, the wider world. What we did was look at what it was to be a chartered engineer and we worked them back into the primary and the secondary curriculum so that professional engineers can recognise them, but also children working in this area can see where they're going as they get older."

It forms a framework for children to follow, allowing them to be nurtured through the system and making sure that they have regular exposure to engineering and possibly particular disciplines within that. Scurlock added: "We can actually keep hold of them. Engineers won't let go of kids that have shown a tendency towards engineering. It is all these things tied together."

Engineers play a crucial role in this. "They are absolutely vital," said Scurlock. "If children and teachers are not made aware of the context of maths and science – the application of it - then it is all meaningless theory. Children, and many adults, learn best by 'doing'. To be able to use 'sums' in a problem solving context is a major educational goal. Engineering allows that. It is also vital that engineers are involved to dispel adults' myths. Primary children have very few preconceptions – and where they do they are easily shifted by an engineer who can tell a good story!"

Many of the companies involved with Primary Engineer will fund work with local schools or across different programmes. For any company however the most important aspect is to enable their engineers to have time to go into the schools. Scurlock said: "Perhaps this is only three days a year but those three days will help embed the programme into the school curriculum, link it to local industry and raise the aspirations of all the children they will come in contact with."

All the support information is already in place for the engineers – it is designed to make the process as simple and productive as possible for all parties. Scurlock concluded: "Engineers can attend the training day alongside the teachers and then agree directly as to how much time will be spent in the school with the teacher. The engineer is not there to teach but to be the 'wow' factor - the expert in the room giving real world context to the project."

If you would like to find out more about the work of Primary Engineer, possibly with a view to getting involved, Susan Scurlock will be presenting at the Manufacturing & Engineering North East (MENE) event in Newcastle. She will be speaking on the first day of the event (July 8th). Places are free but limited, so to reserve your place see all the registration details on page XX of this issue.


Susan Scurlock founded Primary Engineerin a response to the governments call for more young people to be attracted into the engineering profession in 2005. Identifying a need for engineering to begin in primary schools with an emphasis on teacher training provided the basis of the programme. Since then it has expanded to provide teaching resources to be used in classroom, developed transition projects into secondary schools, linked engineers and apprentices to schools and ultimately developed two children's engineering Institutions to enable schools to map and plan STEM engagement and children (5-19) to become members of the first institutions of engineering for young people.

Primary Engineer has worked with a large and growing number of international companies such as Babcock International, Siemens, THALES, NISSAN and many SME's. The Professional Engineering Institutions such as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers have been stalwart supporters of the programme over many years as have the EEF Manufacturers' Organisation and Scottish Engineering.