Kits build engineers

Your article on the decline of science and technology in education got a discussion going here. It turned out that every one of our engineers — and most of our scientists — had used Meccano.

Your article on the decline of science and technology in education (Comment, 21 August) got a discussion going here. It turned out that every one of our engineers — and most of our scientists — had used Meccano.

I have spent years writing books of maverick science and engineering projects for teenagers, but the biggest problem comes at a slightly earlier age. I also run a Saturday science club for pre-teens, and have noticed that youngsters today are not getting the hands-on experience of doing and making stuff that we happy few in engineering today had in our youth; they are missing out on the Meccano experience.

The kit used to get children interested in engineering has to be something like Meccano, based on metal strips with holes in them, rather than Lego Technik or K’nex, clever as those systems are.

A Meccano-type system is more versatile in what you can make with the stuff supplied and is strong enough to do things that need strength.
It can also be easily interfaced — you can screw pieces of wood on to it or glue plastic syringes on to it to use as hydraulic cylinders — and it can stand heat, so you can lash rocket motors or steam engines to it.

The Duke of Wellington said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. Perhaps something similar could be true of Meccano.

Neil Downie
Basingstoke, Hants

In view of the fact that the UK is producing 20,000 engineering graduates a year, why is there a shortage of engineers? If there aren’t 20,000 vacancies to absorb them, why are we encouraging children to study engineering?

Colin Mynott, Northampton

Your editorial raises some fundamental concerns. But the debate should go far beyond education and training and look at the professional status of UK engineers and technologists compared with their peers.

I went through my engineering apprenticeship in the early 1970s, working ever since in the automotive and aerospace sectors, and have witnessed what has actually happened. I believe several factors have contributed to the decline in education for engineering and technology.

First, until the late 70s many companies ran their own training schemes and complemented colleges and university work.

However, in their drive to cut costs many closed those facilities, relying on the education system to do the work for them. This meant we entered an era where companies wanted only to recruit ‘ready-to-go’ engineers who were already qualified and experienced.

Educational establishments were suddenly swamped and lacked sufficient staff with real industrial experience to cope, so the quality of education declined.
Second, all governments since 1979 have made sustained assaults on manufacturing in a successful effort to make our economy service-based.

Third, in countries such as Germany and the US, engineers enjoy far higher status than here. This is quite plain when one compares salaries of different professions.
As a result of these three factors, we are now suffering a breakdown of our manufacturing base.

Many larger companies are now re-engaging with the education process and trying to address the skills shortage, lack of status and poor pay.
Unfortunately, our government has delivered the final blow in the form of tuition and top-up fees, which have unfairly hit those taking engineering and technology courses.

Due to their complex and demanding nature, these are some of the hardest to pass. The costs of providing them are huge compared to arts-based subjects because of the laboratories and equipment required, so they have much higher fees.

So having put in all this hard work to qualify, our future engineers and technologists face the highest level of debt and the least potential to pay them off.
No wonder that when they see the salaries and status enjoyed by their peers in the medical, legal and commercial professions, they turn away from going down the engineering route — or go abroad.

We are putting our long-term economic future at great risk. We must get to grips with these issues before it is too late!

Martin Bird, Solihull

In your recent editorial you rightly wrote: ‘By all means make science and engineering more exciting and more accessible, but let’s do it from a position of knowledge, rather than from half-truths and misunderstandings.’ Doing this requires the co-operation not just of those who have a direct stake in science and engineering, but also those who are outside the engineering or scientific communities.

One of the facets of our daily lives that makes the acquisition of knowledge more difficult is our continued use of the imperial system.

Engineering and science have been using the International System of Units for many years, but we continue to use stones and pounds to weigh ourselves, pounds and ounces for weighing infants and feet and inches to measure our height.

No wonder grams, litres and metres seem to be a foreign language to our school pupils.

If the CBI wants to get the country’s pupils more excited about science and engineering, then they should also do their bit by lobbying the government to complete the task of metrication — which started 41 years ago.

Martin Vlietstra
Fleet, Hants


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