Teach the children well

We’re in the middle of National Science and Engineering Week. You can tell from the relentlessly chirpy articles in the newspapers accompanied by pictures of happy, smiling schoolchildren in safety goggles and white coats.


We’re in the middle of National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW). You can tell from the relentlessly chirpy articles in the newspapers accompanied by pictures of happy, smiling schoolchildren in safety goggles and white coats. All over the country, schools and colleges are staging special events: solving the (fictional) murder of a celebrity chef with CSI-style techniques in Southampton; investigating weather forecasting in Reading; down to the rather surreal sight The Engineer witnessed last week of the chairman of BAE Systems and an RAF Air Vice-Marshall addressing a group of slightly bemused 10-year-olds at a Westminster junior school.


All of this is aimed at diverting the kids into jobs in the lab, the design office and the factory, rather than the (increasingly unattractive) world of finance. It’s vital to impress on young people that science isn’t geeky, that it’s important to society, and that it’s the gateway to rewarding occupations, the mantras go. Clearly the message has some way to go: the Westminster 10-year-olds clearly had no idea what an engineer did. Most of them thought they fixed the family car.


But it’s becoming increasingly clear that science and engineering must play a bigger part in the British economy; lack of market regulation and an overabundance of speculation and plain greed has surely put paid to the 80s dream of an economy running on the finance and support sectors. Equally, it’s clear that the part engineering plays in the UK economy is unlikely to be centred around mass production; even as standards of living rise in China, East Asia is still going to be a lower-cost environment for manufacturing.


The UK is already a prominent centre for design and specialist manufacture, and it seems most likely that this is where the future for ‘wealth generation’ — another horrible term left over from the 80s, but the best we can do — will lie. And that’s all about imagination. So, if we’re going to be pointing our 10-year-olds at careers in engineering, maybe that’s the message we need to get across.


It strikes us also that one reason young children don’t know or understand the word engineering is that they don’t hear it enough. It isn’t the name of any subject on the curriculum, even though nearly all the subjects they study feed into it. How about a design and engineering lesson, where they are encouraged to come up with solutions to simple practical problems? They’d soon start to associate engineering with ingenuity, imagination and inventiveness, rather than oily overalls and spluttering starter motors.


This might sound glib, but consider this. Britain is a thriving centre for software design. Why? Because 25-odd years ago, someone had the bright idea of selling fairly cheap and simple computers to families, leading to a generation who learned BASIC programming for fun. A couple of decades before that, a whole generation was enthused by fiddling around with Meccano; they ended up designing E-type Jaguars, the original Mini and some wonderful architecture.


Give children an outlet for their imaginations and tell them what they can do with it, and you can reap rewards, years down the line. Make it hands-on and co-operative and you’re already on the way to replicating how professional engineers work. And make sure they know it is called engineering.


You never know. It might just work. And it might boost sales of Meccano as well.



Stuart Nathan, special reports editor (who always preferred Lego, to be honest)