Narrative and heroes could bolster the Big Bang

Features editor

While the upcoming Big Bang Fair is clearly doing a good job in promoting careers in science and technology, the education system still needs to do more to make sure students understand the links between science, maths and engineering. Perhaps broadcasters can provide some inspiration.

In a couple of weeks’ time, the Big Bang Fair drops into London, and the great and the good of the engineering world will be manning the stalls at London’s Excel centre to extoll the virtues of a career in science and technology to a crowd of no doubt enthusiastic and receptive children and teenagers. No doubt we’ll hear upbeat messages from all concerned at the breadth, variety and fulfilment offered by this sector; of the amazing things recruits could find themselves working on; the knowledge that they’d be a part of the future.

I wouldn’t dream of knocking the Big Bang. It’s undoubtedly a good thing. I’ve heard first-hand testimony from teachers and students of how it’s inspired people to apply for engineering courses; one senior engineer, who’s been featured prominently in The Engineer heading up a major UK-based project, enthused to me after manning his company’s stall about how it had changed his view of engineering, and has recently started a new job as a principal at a higher educational establishment.

big bang fair
The Big Bang does a good job — but it’s only a part of the solution

The question is: what else needs to be done? Because while Big Bang clearly filled a glaring gap and is doing a good job, it’s just as clear that we still have a problem. The skills gap looming for engineering in the UK (and in the rest of Europe) is real and it can’t be fully solved by such stopgaps as experienced engineers retraining for new sectors or retired engineers returning to act as mentors. The problem is a demographic one combined with a lack of engineering graduates over the past 20 years. We’re just running out of engineers, and the country needs to make sure that its educational establishments are enthusing people and giving them the skills to enter science and engineering at a variety of levels: whether it’s for apprenticeships at 16 or 18, or for university to enter a career (or further training, or study) at graduate level.

Big Bang attendees generally arrive at the Fair knowing little or nothing of engineering, and that’s plainly a problem. We sometimes hear that it’s more important for pupils to learn about the basic principles of maths, physics and chemistry before they hear about how that relates to engineering, but I can’t help thinking this is the wrong approach. It’s clearly possible and rewarding to mix them together — the recent, excellent BBC series The Genius of Invention, featuring Michael Mosely, Dr Cassie Newland and old friend of The Engineer Prof Mark Miodownik successfully mixed together some fairly crunchy thermodynamics, mechanics, physics and even chemistry — including experiments and demonstrations — to illustrate the history, science and context of power generation, engines, communications tech and photography and film. Perhaps someone from the BBC might like to tell us what it was doing on at 9pm on a Thursday, rather than Sunday afternoon where it might have reached a much wider family audience.

If broadcasters can do it, why can’t education? It might be perceived as dumbing down to introduce narrative and character to science and technology subjects — and there’s some discussion as to whether it’s appropriate to teach science in terms of ‘heroes’ and ‘champions’ — but there’s no doubt that it can make it more vivid and memorable, giving something to help allieviate the lists of equations and diagrams that can turn so many people off academic science.

It’s for educationalists to decide how best to teach science and engineering, but it seems clear that engineering has to be given a greater priority in lessons, as well as taken more seriously by careers advisors and ‘sold’ to students. That skills gap isn’t going to go away if we ignore it — it’s just going to get closer and closer. And all the work currently being done to help technologies bridge the gap from research to commercialisation won’t do any good if there isn’t anyone there to actually do the work.