Learning to sort out fact from myth

There is a familiar ring to the latest flurry of headlines bemoaning the decline of science and technology education, and its potentially catastrophic effect on the UK economy.

We have certainly seen them before and, on the basis that things were always better in the good old days, at least some of the doom-mongery should be taken with a pinch of salt.

There is, however, an increasing sense of urgency among those who say we really do need to tackle this issue while there is still time.

The CBI, backed by some heavy-hitters from the business community, pulled no punches when it called for a concerted effort to get the UK’s classrooms excited about science, engineering and technology.

If current trends continue, the organisation warned, we could be left with a population ill-equipped to meet the challenges of running a modern economy. Others such as China and India are turning out technically-qualified students in their droves.

Here, fewer young people are choosing to study physics, chemistry and the other core sciences that form the basis of a technical higher education. Fewer students translates into fewer high-quality teachers to enthuse the subsequent generation, and so the cycle continues.

The facts, and anecdotal evidence about what is going on in schools, suggest that the calls for action need to be heeded.

But what should be done? Part of the solution, according to the CBI, lies in changing perceptions, or should we say misperceptions, of what science-based subjects involve, and what they can lead to.

It said that nothing less than a ‘re-branding’ of physics, chemistry etc is called for, turning them from the dull, unfashionable, poorly-rewarded pursuits of popular imagination into ‘the place to be’ for the teenager who wants to get on.

This is, by any standards, a tough call given the apparently deep roots the negatives have established in the minds of the young. And we have to be deeply suspicious of the word ‘re-branding’, which has connotations of the advertising industry, of dressing up something as something it is not in the hope of selling it to people.

In the case of engineering and technology, we would suggest that the issue is not so much one of re-branding as of presenting the facts, and putting them up against some of the myths.

For example, many young people apparently believe technical qualifications lead to dull, low-paid jobs. In reality, they can lead to exciting and rewarding careers in anything from car design to broadcasting, with salaries that stack up pretty well compared to most other sectors.

Given the proper information, school students will be in a position to make informed choices, and many will make sensible ones.

By all means make science teaching more exciting and accessible. But let’s do it from a position of knowledge, not half-truths and misunderstandings.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer

PS: Two new regular sections make their debut in this issue of The Engineer. The first, called Insight, takes an in-depth look at a product or system with technology and innovation at its heart. The second, Managing Technology, explores some of the key commercial and legal issues surrounding technological innovation. We hope you find them informative and enjoyable.