Educating engineers

Engineering education needs to be completely rethought according to a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Engineering education needs to be completely rethought according to a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The ‘Big Ideas: the future of engineering in schools’ report, supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, reflects the views of leading engineering education experts and key stakeholders such as employers, parents and pupils. It proposes that pupils should be explicitly taught about engineering and the manufactured world as part of existing lessons from primary level upwards. The report also calls for maintaining a broad curriculum for all until the age of 18 and that we should broaden routes into engineering by promoting flexible entry requirements for engineering degree courses.

Peter Finegold, Head of Education and Skills at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and Lead Author of the report, said: “We have an engineering skills shortfall at a time where technology looks set to increase its dominance over much of our lives. Our schools need to adjust to this reality, both by increasing the number and breadth of young people choosing engineering careers, and by empowering those who do not. We need a step-change in the way we talk about engineering in schools and colleges.

“This means ensuring that primary school children are taught not just about the natural world but also taught about the manufactured world too.

“Maintaining a broad curriculum until the age of 18 would mean pupils wouldn’t have to make decisions to give up subjects before they really knew what they were. The consensus is that early specialisation routes young people into either arts or sciences too soon, and prevents many from considering engineering study or training before they’ve encountered it.

“It is essential that we also consider a broader range of entry requirements for engineering degree courses, encouraging people with the right aptitude, but who may not fit the traditional archetype. Not only would this boost the number of people who might consider engineering as a career, but also encourage other creatively-minded people into the profession.

“We need to stop talking about the skills gap and start taking action to ensure that we give children and students the best chance to make informed choices in our technological society. The best way to do this is to change the stories we tell about engineering and make the subject more visible throughout school.

“Engineering is not a job or a set of objects, it is a way of interacting intelligently and creatively with the modern world.

“This report puts forward a number of ways we can ensure engineering has the presence it deserves in the UK school education system. Engineering skills are the linchpin to economic growth, a vibrant jobs market and tackling issues such as population growth and climate change. ”

The key long-term goals of the report are to:

  1. Promote engineering as a people-focused, problem-solving, socially beneficial discipline.
  2. Work to enhance the presence of engineering and the ‘made world’ at all stages from primary level upwards.
  3. Ensure that apprenticeships and other technical pathways not only deliver high quality technicians but also enable individuals to progress to the highest levels of engineering.
  4. Broaden routes into engineering degree courses by promoting more flexible entry requirements.
  5. Maintain a broad curriculum for all young people up to the age of 18.
  6. Shift the emphasis in STEM teaching towards problem-based, contextualised learning.
  7. Nurture engineering ways of thinking in all young people.
  8. Create more spaces and opportunities for young people to design and make things particularly by working collaboratively in interdisciplinary groups.
  9. Use Design and Technology as a platform for integrating STEM and creative design and for raising the profile of engineering in schools.
  10. Change the structure of schools education to embed engineering explicitly at all levels.

The report also makes seven key recommendations that will be the foundation for meeting these longer-term goals including the need for a unified voice from engineering institutions on issues such as a broader curriculum, the need for Government to support teachers in gaining a greater understanding of engineering careers and for Government to ensure that high quality technical training routes will be included in performance measures for colleges and schools.

The findings of the ‘Big Ideas: the future of engineering in schools’ report are based on the Big Ideas project conceived by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and developed with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering. Through a combination of provocative ‘think pieces’ from leading educators, a study of stakeholder attitudes and an international interdisciplinary workshop, the project identified a series of strategic options that, collectively, represent a compelling vision for the future of engineering education in UK schools.