Beyond the Year of Engineering

diversityNick Russell of Thomasons reflects on the legacy of 2018’s Year of Engineering initiative. 

For many, the Year of Engineering has come and gone. As the hype and euphoria dies down, it would be a considerable oversight to believe that the government has successfully ticked a box and can now move onto the next neglected sector. The buck doesn’t stop with a temporary solution; in fact, every year is the year of engineering.

It’s been well known for some time now that STEM careers are in dire need of a more robust recruitment pool. Those preaching for stronger, louder and more frequent promotion of relevant subjects at secondary and tertiary level are at risk of becoming proverbial broken records. Career fairs and colourful posters simply aren’t sufficient, and it may be time to consider a different approach.

year of engineering
2018 was designated the “Year of Engineering” with a series of promotional events

The past two decades have seen rapid technological, social and environmental changes while the education system lags behind, weighed down by old habits and outdated systems. Our entire thinking around teaching, learning, curriculum design and assessment needs to change, from lower education to the workplace, in order to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Commoditisation is a significant barrier. Instead of creating well-rounded graduates, universities are at risk of being seen as simply selling degrees. Services such as insurance, gas and electricity that used to be provided through engagement with human experts are now all online with a high degree of automation and there’s a marked trend to make professional services go the same way. More than ever, complex arithmetic and calculations can be done at the touch of a button. Knowledge is immediately accessible anywhere with an internet connection.

Amidst what might be regarded as depersonalisation lies an opportunity. Humans have more time to do what they do best: think.

So, how we do shift from being a largely knowledge-based society to one focused on adding value, evaluation and creativity?

First, reforms need to be made throughout the education system to reflect the demands of the modern workplace and a shifting environment.

In what I regard as a step in the right direction, Robert Halfon MP recently proposed replacing GCSE exams with a programme focussing on vocational skills and personal development. It is not a new idea and was very much the case in my own school education where learning was aligned to what we were likely to do later on. This is an excellent opportunity to assess the curriculum and look at whether or not it is cultivating the skills needed by today’s students to help them solve tomorrow’s problems.

We need to consider a new approach that moves away from a focus on writing tests, which assesses what students know and remember, to an emphasis on projects, which when executed properly, allow students to demonstrate how they think and learn. Process-based assessments have the added benefit of teaching essential life skills, including problem solving and having the confidence to fail.

Education systems will have to be really brave. There’s a tendency for teachers to teach what they taught last year. Not only is it a self-perpetuating system, it’s a risk to modernisation and the development of new ideas.

The curriculum needs refreshing, which may require the sacrifice of traditional, and comfortable, subjects. Rather than learning theory through A-level Maths, English and History, a cross-curricular programme which promotes a practical approach might be more suitable.

Similar changes need to be made at the tertiary level. Engineers need more than theory. They need social skills, a creative approach, to be inspired by all that is around them and to be able to work in a collaborative environment.

Some universities are starting to switch to degree courses which are based solely on coursework and interviews, instead of exams. This is a good example to follow. Answering questions on paper in a limited amount of time does not prepare students for interacting in person with potential employers and later, colleagues and clients.

Finally, in the workplace, emphasis needs to shift from achievements to ability. I’m not interested in employing a graduate based solely on a high scores in their written exams. I’ll give them a pencil, paper and a problem so they can sketch a solution and explain it. A good recruit has ideas, substance and drive.

The government has developed another campaign called ‘Engineering: Take a closer look’ as a sequel to the Year of Engineering. 2019 is also the Women’s Engineering Society Centenary. In line with these, I sincerely hope that the profession will continue to keep shouting about all the fantastic things it’s done.

Instead of only asking “what next”, we need to be asking who and what else.  Schools and workplaces need to acknowledge that the world has changed. Rising to the challenge may be disruptive, expensive and uncomfortable for many, but if they choose to turn a blind eye, they risk becoming irrelevant

Nick Russell is a director of Thomason’s, a global civil and structural engineering consultancy