Humans have a natural curiosity for how things work. It’s what leads many of us into the design and engineering field. As design becomes increasingly dependent on ‘invisible’ technology, inquisitive children are struggling to answer their curiosities by simply dismantling things with a humble screwdriver like we used to be able to. The mission to make life simpler is adding complexity to the way products function, and instead of wanting to understand how they work, children are being absorbed by these products as consumers.
As a result of this, there is a huge shortfall of interest from today’s children in the engineering industry and the government has since realised the importance of promoting design and engineering disciplines from an early age. It has become easy to get lost in the floods of figures relating to the political reasons why design and engineering so desperately needs more interest from today’s students. By re-engaging students with design and ‘the way things work’ we will be able to fill the growing skills gap, boost the nation’s economic growth and retain a global technological advantage. Failing to engage more students in design and engineering will go far beyond an increased dependence upon global labour forces. The Duke of Edinburgh (2015) recently inferred that it could hinder endeavours of the human race.
Most discoveries and innovations of the past were made by trying to understand how something works. In order to encourage innovation in the future it is essential that we foster curiosity in today’s children and equip them with the ambition and skills to want to pursue and retain a career in our industry. For the past two years I have been heavily involved in a range of STEM programmes (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) observing and understanding what deters children and students from pursuing STEM subjects and what it takes to re-engage them with the way the world around them works.
At a young age our interests are easily influenced by exposure to the stereotypical views and expectations of our society. Dame Professor Ann Dowling (2015) believes that conforming to cultural norms can make the field of engineering uninviting, particularly for girls, due to outdated stereotypes. In order to combat this we need to nurture interest in design and engineering from a young age with the assistance of role models from the industry, to show that social expectations can be overridden by an ambition to pursue engineering. Until our society is gender neutral and unbiased about engineering roles, we should focus on building young girls’ confidence so that they are equally comfortable in pursuing the subject further without feeling incongruous.
It seems rather obvious that if a student doesn’t know about a career they won’t have the ambition to pursue it, yet Ofsted (2013) states that schools rarely offercomprehensive careers advice. From my experience as a ‘Careers Captain’ at The Big Bang Fair (The UK’s largest STEM event) it seems obvious that the most influential and well-informed careers advice comes from the people who have ‘been there and done it’ and are able to discuss how particular subjects, interests and talents play a part in their job. According to Lei Bao (Head of the Physics Education Research Group) the usual theoretical style of teaching does not suit the learning style of many students which can cause them to lose interest in essential STEM subjects from an early age (Science Friday, 2009). Whilst talking to a secondary school Science club I realised how the enthusiasm and knowledge possessed by people who actually work in the design and engineering industry can have a far greater influence on students than their usual theoretical lessons, and this is often enough to reignite students’ interest in the subjects.
Significant efforts are now being made to engage schools and organisations with design and STEM education, and various events have been established across the UK to show young people (primarily aged 7-19) just how many exciting and rewarding opportunities there are in STEM industries if they pursue the correct subjects. Last month I ran a workshop at a STEM event in London to give teams of students a taste of hands-on programming to navigate a robot around a simple obstacle course. This, and many other activities taking place at the event demonstrated how industry involvement can provide a highly engaging and fun way of learning for both the students and the coordinators.
Whilst interviewing Libby Meyrick, Chief Executive of The Institution of Engineering Designers, she explained to me that “the benefits associated with the involvement of business in STEM activities are numerous. The most immediate is the improved understanding and awareness of what industry does and the role of engineers within industry and therefore society.”
Libby clarified “This improved understanding by students, parents and teachers and their appreciation of the excitement and fulfilment of a career in engineering, via hands-on experiences and/or meeting with genuine engineers and scientists is proven to increase the numbers of young people entering the professions and therefore helps to provide a supply of engineers in the future which can only be a benefit to all businesses.”
As well as industry engagement being beneficial for students it is also a cost effective way for organisations to develop their employees’ core competencies such as communication, networking and leadership skills. Many organisations believe that their investment in today’s students will influence the future of their business, and some view their engagement with students as an opportunity to plant career aspirations.
We are all responsible for sharing our knowledge with the next generation in order tohelp them understand and improve the world. There is urgency for students to realise that they are capable of improving everything around us through design and engineering, and it is people who work in the industry who can explain how. If you would like to get involved or find out more, please visithttp://www.stemnet.org.uk/employers/ or get in touch with your local school. The benefits of sharing your knowledge have been underrated for far too long; now is the time to inspire.