It’s the destination that matters, not the starting point

Features editor

We shouldn’t get too hung up on what attracts students into STEM. The important thing is that something attracts them.

A recent article about engineering education in The Guardian — a fairly gloomy article, it hardly needs to be said — bemoaned what the author saw as a problem: that ‘at the moment in primary schools, engineering only comes in during history lessons.’ This is a comment that needs some unpacking.

Firstly, it’s actually quite heartening that a national newspaper would even feature a gloomy article about engineering education. It shows that at least a part of the UK’s mainstream culture appreciates the value of engineers and engineering, and recognises that a failure to teach children about it at an early age is a bad thing. It goes some way towards giving the lie to the view that engineering isn’t valued by society and isn’t a part of what might be called the national conversation.

Not the best representative of STEM?

Secondly, is it really a problem if children first encounter engineering as part of a history lesson? Part of what attracts people to engineering is its potential to change people’s lives: something it has done countless times in the past centuries. Learning how Brunel helped people travel around the country and how technology in general helped people live longer gives irrefutable examples of how following in their footsteps might be something to aspire to.

The article’s author suggests that pointing out that all hospital equipment needs engineers to get them to work might be a better introduction. But that isn’t directly engineering education either.

The problem is that engineering is somewhat abstracted from its foundation blocks. Physics and maths are daunting subjects which many children (and adults even more so) find difficult, and it isn’t immediately obvious, especially in the early stages, how they relate to engineering. This is something which has occurred to the Science Museum, whose new exhibition designed to encourage children into engineering contains several games designed to give visitors an insight into some of the jobs that engineers do along with exhortations to study science and maths, but quite deliberately doesn’t spell out exactly how science and maths contribute to the tasks behind the games.

Another way to do it would be to follow the path that Bloodhound SSC’S education programme is taking: show students something really cool, and then show them some principles to help them emulate a part of it. It’s an approach that’s paid dividends in the past: perhaps the biggest boost to engineering education in recent times was the Apollo programme, which demonstrated in big news stories and exciting images just what engineering was capable of. Bloodhound is consciously following that model, as its senior members never tire of pointing out.

That approach, perhaps, has the advantage of placing engineering in what might be called its proper context from the start. But it’s not easy: despite Bloodhound’s best efforts, it can’t get into every school at just the right point to encourage all kids onto a STEM path. Teachers need careful help to design lessons to get kids interested; but those lessons don’t have to be in the STEM departments. Humans are attracted to stories and narrative: it helps us to form connections between disparate concepts and triggers inspiration. Why shouldn’t a history lesson lead into a STEM module?

There’s another view that what’s needed is more engineers in popular entertainment. Certainly my first exposure to engineering as a named discipline was via Scotty in Star Trek and Brains in Thunderbirds. Neither of these were exactly flattering descriptions: Scotty was a hard-pressed, overworked pessimist and Brains an absent-minded, hesitant figure who made dreadful mistakes, such as bringing along a malfunctioning experimental robot to a rescue which required a tractor beam. This Christmas saw an adaptation of Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm books, whose message of STEM is for everyone, including girls was undermined somewhat by the Professor’s absent-minded portrayal and cavalcade of explosions and mishaps (and he’s always described as a scientist or an inventor, never an engineer). One series that our readers sometimes mention in comments is The Big Bang Theory, but again its depiction of STEM practitioners as social disasters and laughable geeks is hardly flattering and only one of the four main characters is an engineer — a fact that makes him the butt of repeated jokes by the other three physicist characters. Moreover, none of the three regular female characters are engineers.

What seems to be undeniable is that some engineering presence is needed. What form that presence needs to take might not be the most important thing at all. If Professor Branestawm encourages kids into STEM, does it matter if he’s a disaster magnet? If your inspiration comes from a history lesson, does that make your path through education any less valid?