Comment: Inspiring tomorrow's engineers with hands-on learning

EngineeringUK CEO Dr Hilary Leevers places emphasis on the importance of practical learning in engineering and technology lessons at school.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hands-on learning recently, with some concern. I’m a firm believer in the importance of practical learning especially when young people are given the opportunity and time to explore their own ideas through project work.

Practical learning occurs across the curriculum, and when thinking about progression into engineering and tech, earlier experiences in design and technology provide the most obvious precursor. Research published by the Education Policy Institute in March this year found that uptake of D&T GCSEs and A levels have halved since 2009. While there had been some increases in vocational engineering post-16, this is not enough to offset the decline in D&T A levels. This is a combination of demand and supply issues with ongoing D&T teaching shortages and the expense of delivery likely contributing to schools cutting the subject.

Practical work in the other sciences, including computer science, will also be important for inspiring and preparing for progression in engineering and technology. Unlike D&T, almost all students will study biology, physics and chemistry up until the age of 16, but time spent on practical work in science classes had been declining even before the pandemic. Data from Wellcome’s Science Education Tracker 2016 found that most young people in England were motivated by practicals, most wanted to do more, but that those in poorer socioeconomic areas spent less time on practical work.

A repeat of the survey in 2019, provided mixed news. The good news was that the amount of practical work was no longer affected by socioeconomic background, but worryingly that was because all students were getting a similarly low level of activity. This shift coincided with a policy change from teacher-assessed practicals that counted towards exam grades, to a pass/fail requirement to participate in certain practicals.

With the pandemic, the move to remote learning pretty much eliminated practical work and it was limited when students returned to schools because of social distancing rules and issues with equipment sharing.

I fear for the coming workforce and the impact of students missing out on opportunities to be excited and motivated by practically exploring engineering, D&T and science. It is critical that students are given every opportunity to have these experiences as a core part of their educational ‘catch-up’.

More positively, it’s been a delight to get back into schools and colleges and see students enjoying generating and investigating ideas, especially their own. I’ve hugely enjoyed seeing young coders, builders, project managers, designers, researchers and communicators participate in our Robotics Challenge programme back in person. And I can’t wait to see the finalists come together at the ultimate hands-on, interactive experience at The Big Bang Fair that we will be holding for over 35,000 young people at the NEC at the end of June.

Our newly refreshed Energy Quest workshop is also face-to-face in schools. It gives students a chance to problem solve by generating power from everyday objects. But it also importantly spells out how proficient they are at thinking like an engineer and that they would be welcomed in engineering and tech careers.

This valuing of ‘engineering habits of mind’ alongside technical knowledge draws on longstanding work by Bill Lucas and Janet Hanson, who have recently published a new review that finds wide-ranging benefits of practical experience for young people. In a recent panel discussion, we talked about the frustration of getting these benefits recognised and valued by policy-makers and that it will likely take policy change to enable schools and colleges to invest the appropriate amount of time and money in practical learning.

We know that the skills gleaned from practical learning and project work are highly valued by employers and I encourage them to seize any opportunity they have to advocate for more time and funding for practical work in schools and colleges. They can also support in other ways, for example, by helping with materials (e.g., by adding some extra into their own large orders) or equipment (perhaps recycling old equipment, or enabling students and teachers to use items, such as 3D printers, in situ).

Employers can get more involved by offering work placements – from site visits and work experience to T level placements and apprenticeships. I’ve visited a couple of University Technical Colleges recently which perhaps offer the ultimate in industry-education collaboration and visibly enable young people to develop workplace skills and behaviours, whilst keeping university pathways open. I was quite envious of the special and empowering educational experiences the students talked about.

Lucas and Hanson’s recent paper argues that increasing practical learning in schools would boost uptake of engineering. On the flip side, I fear that the weakness of recent provision will add to engineering and tech workforce shortages. I very much hope that the government – perhaps the new Future Skills Unit within the Department for Education – prioritises addressing these issues.

Dr Hilary Leevers is the CEO of EngineeringUK