Article - Issue 50, March 2012

Education, engineering and global competitiveness

Sir James Dyson CBE FREng

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Education, engineering and global competitiveness

The biennial Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering was launched in November 2011, with the leaders of the three main political parties lending their support. Sir James Dyson sees the prize as one way to focus attention on engineering but questions if Britain is educating the next generation of potential winners. He told Ingenia how important he sees the role of education in increasing both the numbers and the quality of engineers.

Airports, high-speed railway lines, and the development of nanotechnology – these are exciting times to be a British engineer. But they are a rare breed and their numbers are in decline. The new engineering prize will show that Britain takes its engineering seriously, but this isn’t reflected in the education system. We need to nurture British engineers so that they develop winning ideas.

Our infrastructural ambitions should augment our skillset and translate into greater expertise. This should develop British technology and boost our exports as people crave our knowledge. But there is a chronic shortage of engineers and it’s going to get worse. More than two million technicians and engineers will be needed to work in Britain over the next decade. We should ensure that they be the most highly skilled and inventive minds in the world. There’s a lot of work for us to do before this is realised.

The government has been largely positive. They have created “a budget for making things” and incentives for inventiveness. But these are measures for the here and now – what of the future? The teaching of Design and Technology (D&T) is threatened with being removed from the National Curriculum. We won’t inspire budding engineers by losing the only subject that blends the practical application of theory with creative problem-solving.

Rather than downgrading its importance, which is looking likely, let’s pull apart the D&T curriculum and redesign it to be academically rigorous and about solving real problems. Let’s get young people pulling machines apart in schools and discovering how they work. D&T must be modern and relevant. Let’s go as far as to make it more like Dyson, Rolls-Royce and JCB’s R&D facilities.

Dyson’s research labs are an exciting place to work: we’ve got a dissected Mini, Russian space suits and a Formula 1 engine – not to mention our semi anechoic chambers, electromagnetic compatibility chambers and over 10 million dust mites. Last month we added a Harrier jump jet to the list. We’re not planning to develop a Dyson fighter jet, but who knows what technology will come out of the depths of our facilities in the future? It is the unknown that keeps Dyson engineers inventing.

Engineers are invaluable and we face competition for them globally. The number of university degrees in science and engineering awarded in China and Taiwan more than doubled between 2000 and 2008. These countries are investing to ensure their supplies of engineers match their demand and we must do the same.

We have been looking for engineers of the calibre needed to invent new technology. We’ve increased our research, design and development headcount in Malmesbury to 650 in the last year, and we’re still looking. Over the next year, we will look to employ another 200 engineers with graduates with starting salaries ranging from £25,000 to £27,000 coupled with a joining bonus of up to £3,000. It’s difficult to find the most inquisitive, bright young minds – there are simply not enough. In fact 45% of employers have difficulty recruiting enough people with the STEM skills they need.

We look for a specific mindset which is backed up with a rigorous engineering knowledge because these are skills that will result in breakthrough technologies. Not just with Dyson, but with all British technology exports. And Britain’s trade balance will benefit as a result. Technology can inspire, and when engineers are set free, the opportunities are limitless. The National Curriculum would benefit from recognising this.

D&T is an expensive subject and of course most schools can’t afford to provide facilities equivalent to ours at Dyson; but some of the things we do could be brought to life in the classroom at relatively little expense, and the pay-off would be huge. The James Dyson Foundation already provides free resources to teachers, including vacuum cleaners, which we encourage them to take apart and rebuild. The state in which they come back proves that reverse engineering is a fulfilling pursuit!

A look into the mind of an engineer might help build a new curriculum. They are inquisitive, asking ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ Always yearning to redesign, improve and better understand. I guarantee that if a D&T curriculum reflected this mindset more, engineering applicants would increase, resulting in more exciting British technology to celebrate.

Mr Gove, if, as Secretary of State for Education, you want an inspired curriculum, and a generation of problem solvers: challenge Dyson engineers to engineer a first-class curriculum. I think you might be surprised by the results. Perhaps one day the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering will be presented to a Brit, inspired by their teachers and galvanised by the curriculum to solve problems and build a Britain for the 21st century.

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