Teacher shortages in STEM subjects continue to grow, according to a National Audit Report published in February 2016, and engineering still finds it hard to attract women into the profession. In the light of these challenges, does the engineering profession itself need to rethink the way that it promotes engineering in schools? It may seem obvious, but research commissioned by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) concluded that the profession’s traditional style of communication towards young people should change radically and should target different audiences in different ways.
The IMechE’s report, Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education, clearly identified that some young people, predominantly male, are readily enthused by technology. The report describes them as “STEM devotees”. These are youngsters who will consider engineering as a career come what may. As such, communication needs only to confirm their views.
Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng
The report also found a second large group, dubbed “social artists”, predominantly female, who enjoyed STEM subjects less than the "devotees" but were highly creative. Could a different message, tailored to its interests, convince some of this group to study engineering? If anything, tailoring communication to this group could be far more productive in filling the skills gap.
If industry cannot rely on STEM teaching and careers advice to increase the number of students considering careers in engineering, should the profession take matters into its own hands? Three ideas might help.
First, engineering should support and promote the new national network of University Technology Colleges (UTCs) – see UTCs in Ingenia 48. Dedicated to engineering and technology, 39 UTCs have already opened; by 2017, the number will grow to 55. Here, the messaging about engineering is very different from that of traditional secondary schools. UTCs are government-funded schools, each hosted by a university, teaching 14- to 18-year-olds technical and scientific subjects through a creative and practical approach. Over 50 universities are involved already, with strong industry backing. Many of the UTCs’ pupils go on to university, others to apprenticeships.
Secondly, we should consider whether technology itself has a role to play in augmenting teaching in schools for STEM students. The success of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) in universities could trigger a different approach to teaching maths, sciences, design and technology in schools. Is there a model to deliver open online courses in schools, creating a new partnership with the formal teaching system? In the fourth industrial revolution, internet technologies will enable the clients and customers of industry to shape their own experiences and outcomes; surely the same model could work in schools. We are, after all, educating a generation of digital natives that happily conducts much of its social life online. Why not its education?
Alongside the upgrade in teaching resources for STEM students must sit an upgrade in careers information and advice. Here too, technology can bring the excitement of engineering to young people seeking insights into career choices. Perhaps an internet version of the excellent programme run by the charity Speakers for Schools, focused on the role of technology in the world, would be a start.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the message from the Five Tribes research is that no amount of automotive or aerospace imagery will attract young people beyond the established percentage already interested in the subject. We need a more sophisticated approach to the promotion of engineering as a career if we are to capture other young imaginations. The "social artists" group are not convinced by technology as it is currently presented to them, but are highly creative and potentially interested in engineering as a means to support art and design, or social issues.
Unless the engineering profession adopts a new persona, aimed at reaching this alternative cohort, the same old pattern will continue. The good news is that the Royal Academy of Engineering is already working on these very lines in partnership with employers and professional institutions through the new Engineering Talent Project (ETP). The aim is to attract young people into engineering using social marketing to change perceptions and behaviour rather than messages that reinforce the old stereotypes. As the IMechE puts it, “We already know that society needs more engineers. It’s time to do something about it.” The ETP is a step in the right direction.
Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng