How can we get more kids into engineering?
So many aspects of our lives depend on engineering and manufacturing. Without these disciplines and the people who study them, the world would be completely unrecognisable. Everything from transportation and the way we communicate, to sports and entertainment, and even things like the medicine we depend on, wouldn’t even exist.
The UK’s engineering industry also makes huge contributions to our economy. According to EngineeringUK, employers and businesses in this field have the potential to contribute £27 billion per year from 2022. That’s the same as building 110 hospitals and 1,800 secondary schools. Hitting this target could transform the UK as we know it.
But despite the incredible dependence that we place on engineers within our society, and the fact that it actually is an exciting discipline, the UK is suffering from a huge shortage of engineers, something that is holding the industry back.
The root cause lies within education. Demand is outweighing supply by an immeasurable amount, and we simply aren’t able to keep up. So in order to solve this, we need to turn to the next generation.
Research conducted by Neutronic Technologies has revealed that 69% of people in the UK believe a greater focus should be placed on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in primary schools.
Kids love to build with blocks; they love to draw and create things - they are natural born engineers, and so their wonderfully creative minds are the obvious solution to some of the problems that we face.
In this unique report, the problems at the core of this issue are explored in-depth. What is keeping more children and young people from pursuing an education and career in engineering? Why exactly do we need to ramp up our efforts? And, most importantly of all, what can we do to change the path we are currently on?
What’s the problem?
Demand is rising fast for engineers. As the world is faced with problems such as global warming, trying to use less energy and produce cleaner water, universities across the world simply aren’t producing enough professionals capable of dealing with these issues.
Sir James Dyson, one of the UK’s most well-known inventors has voiced his concerns about the UK’s shortage of engineers, describing it in The Telegraph in 2013 as the “biggest barrier to growth at his company.”
Surely the best way to solve this problem is to increase the supply to meet the demand. But this is easier said than done, and the figures just aren’t adding up.
We simply aren’t encouraging our future generations to enter engineering as much as we should.
Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Professor of Enterprise and Engineering Education at the University of Sheffield, believes that the lack of young people entering the industry is one issue that needs to be solved for the good of the future:
“We hear it again and again; engineers solve problems and we have many problems to solve: energy, poverty, food, and health just to mention but a few. Current engineers are doing their best to leave our children with a better world but these problems are long term and it is the engineers of the future who will no doubt do it. That is, if children today choose to be those problem solvers.”
Sources: * Figures from Engineering UK
The figures above say it all. According to Paul Jackson, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, the situation is far more serious than it may have originally seemed:
“Britain’s strong, vibrant and innovative engineering industry is driving productivity, with benefits across the economy. However, the gap between supply and demand for people with engineering skills is still large enough to cause concern for the long-term future; we need to double the number of graduates and apprentices entering the industry to fill this demand.”
Why does this problem exist?
The problem is incredibly simple: we just aren’t producing enough engineering graduates to meet the huge demand in the industry. But it is very difficult to pinpoint just one reason why the UK is experiencing such a huge shortage of engineers. It is likely to be a number of reasons, and each one needs to be tackled before we can start to see real change.
1. Misconceptions – From a young age, we are all aware of certain professions like doctors, lawyers and astronauts – we know exactly what they do. But not everyone knows exactly what engineers do, and if we don’t know, how can we feel motivated to follow in their footsteps?
Paula Tinkler, Commercial Director of Chemoxy, believes a simple misunderstanding about what engineers do can cause more damage than you think:
“I have always found it very difficult to explain what a STEM career might look like. Children know from an early age what a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer is. There are easily identifiable tools and uniforms such as a stethoscope, chalk and a white wig. We also find it difficult to describe our jobs in an elevator pitch – ‘we fix things, we design things, we manage projects’ – and children do not visit our workplaces in the course of their early school years.”
2. Lack of women – Only 9% of the UK’s engineering workforce are female. In reality there is simply no way to overcome our country’s lack of engineers without addressing the gender imbalance. Whilst this in itself is a topic that deserves its own in-depth investigation, it is nevertheless an important one to bear in mind when we consider why we are in this current situation. More must be done to encourage young girls and women to take up STEM subjects, otherwise the problem can only get worse.
3. No one leading the way – Unfortunately, engineers aren’t celebrated in the way that they should be. If the spotlight were to be shifted onto the inspiring men and women who are out there making huge differences, it would inspire so many people. What we need is more mentors and leaders who can guide and teach.
How do we get more children interested in STEM?
The potential problems holding back the growth of the engineering industry have been identified, but that’s not enough. What we really need is a plan of action on how these problems can be tackled and overcome.
Speaking to numerous experts in the manufacturing and engineering industry, both working professionals and academics with years of knowledge, this report now explores the steps that need to be taken to increase the supply and usher in the next generation of world-changing engineers.
1. Start as early as possible
There are dozens of university courses and plenty of companies out there offering apprenticeships, but these are only offered to those who are 16 or 18 years old.
So by the time they reach the point where they will be making the decisions that will impact their future, it is often already too late to spark an interest in engineering. There are dozens of university courses and plenty of companies out there offering apprenticeships, but these are only offered to those who are 16 or 18 years old.
Following that logic, more effort needs to be made in capturing children’s interest in primary school, which begins when they reach age five. But what if we could plant the seed of a career in manufacturing or engineering even before then?
That’s where Mini-Engineers was born.
After finding nowhere for her eldest son to combine interactive learning with his love of LEGO, Yvette Zee set up her own classes for him and his friends. Whilst she is not an engineer, her father was, and so she has grown up surrounded by basic engineering principles throughout her life.
Yvette describes how she felt inspired to take matters into her own hands:
“I did my research and I found so many benefits of building, and thinking outside of the box, and I just thought it would be a great way to encourage children to become involved in this area a little more.
“We started two years ago and it’s been great at encouraging them to think more creatively and build great things and to really use that imagination. At the heart of engineering, at the heart of everything they do, is inspiration, and that’s what we tap into. From the building that we do to the people we have with us, we want everyone to inspire each other.”
From their Innovation and Inspiration Lab in London (also known as the iLab) Mini-Engineers offer LEGO holiday camps, specialised workshops and even weekly classes, all of them designed to get those creative cogs turning in their heads.
Catering skills to meet demand…
Despite the road that lies ahead, there have already been tremendous improvements in this area. Not even five years ago, primary and secondary schools were still teaching ICT (information and communications technology) as an elective and sometimes even mandatory subject, which taught children how to use technology.
Nowadays, software is a part of our everyday lives. Children don’t need to be taught how to use computers, as chances are they probably know how to use a tablet before they reach primary school. As we approach the era of ‘the internet of things’, a far greater emphasis is now placed on getting children to understand how computers work and how to use code to design and create working programmes.
A huge number of industries now employ computer programmers, and not just in computer engineering. Even media industries now require some level of HTML knowledge, and those who have a full working understanding of coding are highly sought after across the country.
The children who are currently in primary school are the very first generation to grow up using apps and high-tech computers every single day. It’s essential that we show them that they can also build a future with them.
2. What exactly is engineering?
If you ask any person what they think of when they hear the word ‘engineer’, the majority of them will likely picture a man coming to fix the boiler when it breaks. Or perhaps someone who installs their broadband, or someone who services their car once a year.
Figures from EngineeringUK in 2013 revealed that just five years ago, only 11% of 12-to-16-year-olds had some knowledge of what engineers do. In 2012, the number had risen to 19%. Whilst it is encouraging to see this figure almost double, it is still an incredible shame that, at such a late age, there is still such a misconception around what the engineering and manufacturing industry actually does.
The truth is that without engineering we wouldn’t have many of the things that we take for granted today. From the food that we eat; the water we can access at the turn of a tap; medicines that make us better; the cars we drive; buildings we live in and the internet that connects everything together. None of these would have been possible without dedicated engineering and manufacturing professionals.
Engineering touches so many aspects of our daily lives, and there are dozens of different disciplines that children could get involved in. In fact, there’s practically something for everyone. It isn’t all about fixing boilers and broadband…
Elena has been saying for a long time that the majority of people aren’t aware of the true impact that engineering has on our lives:
“In the UK, the general public don’t seem to be aware that engineers are the people who have invented everything they use from their mobile phones to their food processors, their medicines and their cosmetics. Everything you interact with or use from the moment you wake up until you go back to sleep has had many engineers involved in making it so.”
Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the main things that needs to change in education, and quite drastically, is the outside perception and a simple awareness of the industry.
Paula Tinkler of Chemoxy emphasised the importance of visibility:
“Take STEM activities into schools, holiday clubs, the Scouts and Brownies, and bringing children to the workplace. We run a ‘Children Challenging Industry’ programme which is where primary school children aged 10 – 11 come to the factory and explore the science of Mixology.”
The answer is quite simple; we need more mentors. More role models who can go into primary schools, or have the kids come to them, so that they can discover exactly what they do, where they do it, how they do it and the real-world impact of their work.
3. Educating the educators
It’s not just the students who are missing out on these vital pieces of knowledge. Teachers can play a key role in a child’s future; they are a huge part of their lives, they spend a large chunk of the week together, and have the potential to influence their academic path. If teachers don’t have an educated grasp on what engineers do and the career possibilities out there, then how are they supposed to encourage others to follow?
Elena believes that those who children look up to can play an incredibly pivotal role in inspiring more STEM students…
“Engineering is not celebrated or recognised and therefore, is not in the minds of the parents or people close to the children like teachers, who have the most influence in what they decide to study.
“I would like to work directly with parents and those influencers. They are the key to unlocking the understanding of what engineering is and can do for the world in children’s minds and imaginations.”
If teachers are under the same impression as many other people, and simply aren’t aware of the huge range of career possibilities that open up with an education in manufacturing and engineering, they aren’t going to encourage young students to take that path.
Unfortunately a second supply and demand problem arises here: there just aren’t enough specialist STEM teachers out there. But they don’t have to be experts – certainly not in the very early stages of a child’s development. If general primary teachers have a detailed understanding of STEM subjects and future career pathways in this area, they can provide real advice and information. At this age children don’t have toknow exactly what subjects they are going to study, they just have to be interested in an area and have the support to set them on that path. The rest will fall into place.
Jess Penny, General Manager of Sales at Penny Hydraulics, says company open days and field trips aren’t just for students:
“STEM-promoting initiatives between schools and businesses which focus on the current perception of STEM subjects and careers, with students and their teachers, are vital. STEM teachers need to feel confident in giving careers advice in manufacturing and engineering. Businesses co-delivering activities such as careers workshops alongside teaching staff, can help develop the knowledge of staff and students. Teacher placement schemes in business, business-led workshops or open days for teachers can also help teaching staff better understand the STEM careers landscape and advise students appropriately. By supporting teachers, some of whom - particularly at primary level may not be STEM specialists businesses can help them have the confidence to teach STEM-related topics in creative and inspiring ways, and to promote STEM as a career path to their students.”
4. Working together
Apprenticeships are a fantastic route into the industries of engineering and manufacturing. For those who don’t want to go to university or those who prefer the hands-on approach, apprenticeships allow you to learn in a real-life setting, gain a qualification and a job at the very end. But these sort of programmes are only offered to those who are leaving school, which means young people are only becoming aware of this path at 16 or 18. As we’ve already discussed above, by that time it’s too late.
While there may not be schemes for younger children to join, it is still possible to engage with them as early as possible, and to teach them about the plentiful opportunities that are available to them. All it takes is a little teamwork from everyone involved.
Jess Penny talks about how we can enthuse and encourage young people and teachers to seek out additional information about engineering:
“Teachers are crucial in developing and inspiring young people to become the scientists and engineers of the future. But there is a much wider role that we can all play in helping teachers to make STEM-related subjects more engaging by opening young people’s eyes to their relevance to themselves and their own lives.
“Most companies offer work experience places and apprenticeship schemes, but this may not be enough as these typically start when the child is 14 years old or more. Children need to be engaged at a younger age at primary school level. Manufacturing companies can assist by liaising with schools to organise class trips to their premises or sending engineers to talk to children to provide real industry role models to give young people insights into STEM-related jobs. There are also a number of national programmes and events that companies can participate in such as Tomorrow’s Engineers and National Women in Engineering Day organised by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES).”
EngineeringUK is a countrywide organisation that also runs an initiative called Tomorrow’s Engineers Week in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering, providing a “one stop shop” for resources on all the incredible careers that manufacturing and engineering can offer. In 2015 they reached more than 200,000 young people with initiatives such as workshops, STEM ambassador partnerships and industry visits.
Paul Jackson from EngineeringUK believes that strong teamwork needs to be a higher priority:
“We need more young people to understand how what they learn at school is used in the real world. Giving young people the chance to talk directly to engineers and engage in hands-on activities that showcase and contextualise engineering is at the heart of the Tomorrow’s Engineers approach.
“Tomorrow’s Engineers provides a platform for employers to work effectively with schools to inspire more young people to consider a career in engineering and develops high-quality careers resources that provide clear, consistent information and guidance for young people, their teachers and parents. Delivering national impact through local coordination, Tomorrow’s Engineers has directly reached over 300,000 young people in the past year. The vision is to create a national network of employers working locally to reach one million young people every year with effective careers interventions from STEM employers.
“We believe that getting more young people into the sector is best achieved through collaborative action across government, engineering businesses, the education sector and the wider engineering community, helping young people understand all the exciting opportunities out there in engineering and STEM for those with the right experience and qualifications.”
5. Play, not work
Children learn best through interactive learning; getting their hands dirty and becoming immersed in the problem they are facing. It’s not easy to learn simply by being talked at. In fact, even most adults find it difficult to take in new information through audio or visual methods alone.
The industries of engineering and manufacturing, by their very nature, are extremely hands-on, interactive and creative. So what better way is there to encourage kids to become more involved?
Mini-Engineers is a prime example. It encourages an understanding of STEM, enhances problem solving skills, builds creativity, and challenges them to think about architecture. It also encourages teamwork; these are all skills they can take into the future.
Because engineering is all around us in everyday life, kids can learn about how it works in a whole range of different ways. Here are just a few ideas…
If we want more children to take up these kinds of subjects in the long term, then we need to introduce them to those industries in a way that they understand. We can’t just dump heavy textbooks in front of them or talk endlessly at the front of a classroom. Bringing the subject to life through interactive play is the best way to hit two birds with one stone; you encourage them to learn and keep them entertained and occupied at the same time.
Paul Fogarty, Managing Director of K’NEX UK, is a strong advocate of learning through hands-on opportunities:
“By building, testing, learning and reworking, pupils have a hands-on, minds-on experience that makes learning fun. Supported by teaching that encourages questioning, debate, experimentation, presentation and critical reflection, pupils have access to engaging and highly enjoyable challenges that develop core skills, creativity, decision making and inventive problem solving. In addition, by bringing real excitement to the classroom, pupils are more likely to explore related careers so it’s fantastic to play a part in helping to encourage the next generation of engineers!”
What can we expect in the future?
The world is changing drastically. Many of the top corporations are software or technology companies, a huge amount of careers are now involved with computers or engineering, and the problems facing our world need a new, fresh and intelligent generation to solve them.
There is still a long way to go. And it is likely to be many years before we even come close to addressing the imbalance of supply and demand that we are currently experiencing. But by employing some of the tactics that have been explored in this report, addressing the gender gap and ensuring that a light is shone on the real world of engineering, it’s very possible that the entire industry could be transformed in the years to come.
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