Article - Issue 47, June 2011

Engineering Engagement Project

Melanie Washington

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Students at BAE Systems in Barrow discovering how ‘smart’ metals can be. The students tested the reaction rates of a nickel-titanium alloy spring, one that is able to ‘remember’ shapes. One of the problems set was to consider the ‘smart spring’ as comparable to human muscle and how these might be useful for the future of robotics. Here the students are placing a variety of masses onto the spring to see how this effects the rate at which it returns to its original shape

Students at BAE Systems in Barrow discovering how ‘smart’ metals can be. The students tested the reaction rates of a nickel-titanium alloy spring, one that is able to ‘remember’ shapes. One of the problems set was to consider the ‘smart spring’ as comparable to human muscle and how these might be useful for the future of robotics. Here the students are placing a variety of masses onto the spring to see how this effects the rate at which it returns to its original shape

The Engineering Engagement Project, a new initiative from The Royal Academy of Engineering, sets out to show young people the opportunities and benefits a career in engineering can bring. Melanie Washington, the project’s manager, explains the aims and results of the scheme so far.

The UK runs the risk of experiencing a severe shortage of the engineers it will need to ‘rebalance the economy’ in favour of productive industries rather than the service sector. Earlier this year, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills reported that the UK’s manufacturing sector will need to recruit at least half a million engineers and technicians by 2017 if it is to meet projected employment demands. This eye-opening figure comes at a time when the engineering sector – inextricably linked to manufacturing – still accounts for a crucial 20% of GDP.

The UK faces a serious shortfall in young recruits at both technician and professional levels. The Engineering Engagement Project (EEnP) was established two years ago to help counter this trend following a £700,000 donation from BAE Systems.

The project’s key role is to support teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and to show 11-14 year-old schoolchildren how exciting engineering can be. The Engineering Engagement Project also builds on lessons learned from other Academy-led activities, such as the London Engineering Project which set out to get more young Londoners into engineering careers, especially women and people from the Caribbean, Bangladesh and Pakistan are all currently under-represented in engineering (see Lessons
Learnt
in Ingenia 42).

Right now, engineering ambassadors are being trained to go into classrooms and after school clubs and demonstrate the roles that engineers play in society. At the same time, teachers are receiving training in engineering disciplines, funds to set up after-school science clubs and access to new online resources.

 

Help to improve teaching

If schoolchildren are to receive a good technical education and to engage with engineering, they need teachers who are knowledgeable and confident with relevant areas of the curriculum. However, a recent report from Office for Standards in Education, Meeting technological challenges?, suggests teachers need help. The report cited a lack of subject-specific training as preventing teachers from developing students’ skills in aspects
of design and technology, such as electronics, control and computer-aided design and manufacture.

In response to this, the EEnP now provides courses in continual professional development (CPD) specifically focusing on electronics and systems and control. Teachers can attend these courses at one of nine Science Learning Centres, typically based at a university to provide CPD to teachers. The courses were developed by the National Science Learning Centre, the Design and Technology Association and the Royal Academy of Engineering. All teachers completing the course receive a classroom resources kit that includes circuit boards and components to help them to put new ideas into practice.

Sadly, not all teachers have the time to attend additional training courses. So the EEnP has set up an online version of one its CPD courses where participants can work alongside each other and a tutor on the internet. Over a period of five weeks, studying up to five hours per week, participants work together on the internet using the online forum of people to develop their skills, knowledge and plans. The course incorporates a combination of self study, practical work and, most importantly, reflection on their experiences via the forum. This acts as a support network for the participants. It is this sharing of reflection and engaging with a tutor and colleagues from other schools that creates added value to this course.

Inspirational role models

In the past, many engineers have cited a family member or friend as their inspiration for studying engineering. Today, the career path chosen by many young people is also heavily influenced by role models.

With this in mind, the Academy, as part of EEnP, is working with STEMNET, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics network that aims to encourage young people to study these disciplines. STEMNET is the national provider of some 28,000 STEM-Ambassadors, 40% of them engineers. These Ambassadors are volunteers with STEM skills who share their time and knowledge with students and teachers, and provide careers advice.

Through EEnP the Academy has worked in partnership with STEMNET to create a ‘booster’ training programme for its ambassadors. One focus is to engage girls while breaking down common engineering stereotypes. The collaboration has also developed hands-on learning resources that the teacher or ambassador can use in the classroom. Early feedback looks promising. Many ambassadors have reported positive results with schoolchildren. The pharmaceuticals and healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline plans to incorporate the training into its graduate programme from September 2011.

By 2012, when the project ends, some 500 engineering ambassadors from all over the UK will have taken part in the additional training. This wide reach is possible because the EEnP adopted a ‘cascade’ model. Teams of trainers are centrally trained and these individuals return to regional centres to train ambassadors, ensuring that hundreds receive the extra training.

After school clubs

So how do STEM ambassadors get involved with a school? The main route has been through an after school science and engineering club or STEM Club. The EEnP intends to enhance these clubs and to increase extra-curricular activities in science and engineering across England. Around 2,000 STEM Clubs already existed in the STEMNET network, this figure is rising now that the EEnP and STEMNET have joined forces.

Working together, the EEnP and STEMNET identified schools that might benefit from more engineering-related activities. The EEnP then provided money and resources to establish after-school or lunchtime clubs. For example, as a part of the package, STEMNET’s website offers 16 free hands-on engineering resources that schools can download, while a programme of CPD for club leaders provides the skills and knowledge required to use these resources with students.

Putting teaching in practice

A crucial part of teaching STEM subjects is to show students that mathematics and science are relevant to their world. With this in mind, the EEnP has also developed resources so that teachers and STEM ambassadors can provide hands-on activities that do just this. Examples include how reinforced jellies can mimic engineering construction, how smart materials might be useful in supermarkets and examining the properties of cornflour that have a potential for body protection.

The EEnP activities provide starting points for including engineering in STEM Clubs and lessons. Each resource highlights the apparatus needed and gives a clear method, as well as providing a science explanation, curriculum links, ideas for further projects and careers information.

Teachers and STEM-Ambassadors are encouraged to tailor the resources to their own areas of interest and expertise, and to mix and match with the tasks covered in the support resources. A selection of quick, easy and inexpensive activity sessions can be used to spark inspiration and show the diversity of engineering.

The project’s legacy

The Engineering Engagement Project has already achieved many of its objectives and has created lasting online resources. The EEnP’s three years’ work ends in 2012. In the meantime, the EEnP plans to produce more hands-on activities for after-school science and engineering clubs as well as comprehensive STEM resources that teachers can used to deliver parts of the National Curriculum.

The project’s success will be judged by its continuing impact on the enrichment of teaching in science and engineering in schools. The ambassadors, teachers and students involved will all have benefited and the effects will be seen in the coming years.

To see all the resources go to: www.raeng.org.uk/eenpresources and
www.stemnet.org.uk/news/view/1232192

Ingenia would like to thank Dominic Nolan for his help in writing this article.

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