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Engineering should be made more visible in schools, says poll of academics

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Plus, universities are adapting courses to spotlight sustainability

The UK’s engineering academics have called for greater visibility for the subject in schools as a way of tackling labour shortfalls and the need to find environmental solutions, following a poll by NMITE (New Model Institute for Technology & Engineering) and the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC). 

NMITE and the EPC worked together to conduct the survey of the nation’s engineering academics in advance of the EPC’s ‘Engineering Academics Network Annual Congress’ which NMITE is hosting in Hereford from 12th June. The three-day event will see engineering academics from universities all over the UK come together to explore issues in education and engineering.   

When asked what should be done to elevate the status of engineering, almost two thirds (63%) of respondents felt that engineering should be made more visible in schools, with one commenting: “help to educate parents about what a fantastic career choice a Professional Engineer is.” This emphasises the importance of raising awareness of engineering as a career choice, as many school leavers are either unaware it’s an option, think they must have maths or science qualifications to be considered, or hold the view that it’s a career path just for certain types of people. 

James Newby, CEO at NMITE, gave his thoughts on the results:

“It’s clear that more needs to be done to help inform young people about engineering as an option, earlier in their learning journey. This is not a finger pointing exercise targeted at schools. They have enough on their plates. It’s important that the national curriculum reflects the diversity of careers available to school leavers within STEM. In September 2022, T level courses started in Engineering, which is a promising sign that things are moving in the right direction.

“We are also seeing impressive initiatives from industry trying to assist with the education piece, alongside institutions like ours going into schools and engaging directly with students. It’s about putting engineering on their radar and changing some of those perceptions that engineering is only for boys, or for those who excel at maths for example. Our new model of education is open to new and different kinds of thinkers and the old stereotypes don’t apply.”

Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of the EPC, commented:

“The UK has a skills shortage in engineering running into tens of thousands every year. Without plugging that gap, we cannot hope to address the environmental, technological, economic and social challenges we face and that many young people care passionately about. But you cannot be what you cannot see. We need to be clearer in schools about what engineering is – a creative subject that applies science and design to real-world problems and which leads to fulfilling and rewarding careers for all kinds of students.”

Not far behind the need for more visibility of engineering in schools, the EPC research also revealed that 60% of respondents felt that making ‘engineer’ a restricted professional title in the UK, as it is in many other countries, could elevate the status of the profession. 

Demonstrating just how important climate considerations are for the industry, 61% said they last changed their curricula to place agreater emphasis on sustainability, followed by 54% who did so to improve student satisfaction. This emphasis is certainly true of NMITE, with its Centre for Advanced Timber Engineering which aims to create a new workforce skilled in the use of sustainable construction materials and techniques, to drive the development of a much more sustainable built environment.

In line with the theme for the upcoming Engineering Academics Network Annual Congress, which is ‘New Models’, when asked what the most promising new models for engineering education are, over half (54%) answered project-based learning, with 49% choosing problem-based learning. Either way, both show that practical, hands-on learning by doing is the way forward, something that NMITE embraces wholeheartedly. Newby comments: “We teach our courses in studios, not lecture theatres, and in small teams – not large groups. Most importantly, the programmes involve, at every stage, engagement with employer partners and work on real life projects.”

The EPC and NMITE research also included an open-ended question around the gender gap in the engineering workforce, which highlighted a strength of feeling around the topic. While some rallied against the question and argued that women do prosper, others felt that concerns around unconscious bias and the industry being male-dominated were a barrier. Off-putting workplace attitudes and culture, inflexible working patterns and a lack of accommodation for family commitments still present an issue for many women in engineering. 

Fittingly, as part of the programme of events for the Engineering Academics Network Annual Congress, world-renowned physicist Prof Dame Athene Donald DBE will give a lecture on 12th June, 7pm at Hereford Cathedral chaired by Karen Usher DL, NMITE Founder. The lecture, entitled: ‘Innovation: new ideas & new people’, will explore the disadvantages and gender bias women face and will explode common myths which can deter women from science. She will make a compelling case for greater diversity in modern research to improve science and tackle the great challenges we face today.

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