If you ask me

Bringing science, design technology and mathematics to life for school children by highlighting their engineering context. Also, the search for the soul of synthetic biology.

A vital vowel

Last month I had the annual treat of attending the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust's Engineering Colleges conference in Bristol. Representatives of 65 specialist colleges were there in force, enjoying a day of applied engineering at Rolls-Royce and sharing our best practice.

It is good to see how successful the Engineering Colleges are at raising achievement in science, mathematics and design technology, by inspiring young people to apply their learning in engineering contexts.

My frustration is that the Department for Children, Schools and Families' STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) agenda appears to overlook the vowel and focuses all its attention on the consonants! I believe that the E needs to be pronounced very clearly: science, design technology and mathematics come alive when they are applied in engineering contexts.

The conference workshops were inspirational, enthusing the many young engineering practitioners, who will have returned to their schools keen to incorporate new thinking into their study programmes.

There is an exciting and ever increasing range of engineering activities and competitions. The Go4SET and Young Engineers' Education Scheme initiatives run by the EDT are well established, and schools are buzzing with Galactic Knights engaged in the Virgin Galactic Challenge. The conference saw the launch of a Boeing/Royal Aeronautical Society Build a Plane competition that will call on all the mathematical, physical, technological and entrepreneurial skills of young people.

But the excellent engineering teachers will find it hard to drive the engineering-focused initiatives when everyone else is focusing on science, technology and maths: the heart of the STEM strategy can't keep beating unless it is given our full attention.

Headteachers are reminded that performance targets in physics and mathematics need to be met if the UK is to have a skilled future workforce. There is considerable investment in science and mathematics education, to overhaul GCSE and Advanced Level specifications and to recruit and retain specialist teachers with 'golden handcuffs'. The government is not going to get the best return on its investment. It needs to get its mind clear on what engineering is and then invest in recruiting teachers and invest much more wisely in the Engineering Diploma.

The Engineering Specialist Colleges are changing perceptions of an engineer, from the uniquely British view of a person who has practical skills, to the more universal definition of a person who engineers solutions, who has a strong intellectual grasp of mathematics, physics, technology, possesses great creativity and moral responsibility, works best in a team, to bring about improvement.

We are committed to the diploma. Many of us led successful gateway applications and are heavily engaged in the pilot. Capital investment can come from the Building Schools for the Future programme, diploma exemplar funding and local authority capital grants. As there is no national co-ordination of the funding streams, some engineering diploma collaboratives have access to all of them and some to none!

It would be sensible to put an engineer in charge of the DCSF: we should have a better chance of getting a creative, co-ordinated solution to the UK's skills shortage.

Elizabeth Allen is headteacher of Newstead Wood School for Girls, a Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, Engineering, Languages and Gifted & Talented lead school in the London Borough of Bromley

Synthetic biology's culture clash

Synthetic biology has a simple promise that is arguably best summed up by one of its pioneers, Professor Tom Knight of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So much of technological development depends on precision chemistry. And there is no more precise chemist right now than nature.

Chemical engineers have delivered plants to process vast quantities of bulk materials. But when you need macromolecules to be assembled one molecular component at a time, your best bet is to use proteins.

Although it currently suffers from data overload - a byproduct of the high-volume techniques made possible by DNA chips and large-scale DNA sequencing - our understanding of biology is improving. It is no longer foolhardy to think of redesigning simple organisms. We will be tinkering around the edges for some years, but it is likely to result in more efficient fuel and polymer production as well as medical treatments.

It's all so rosy, what could possibly go wrong?

You have technological risk. You might be able to coax fuel out of microbes on a millilitre level but attempts to scale up production just leave you with a vat of dead bugs. Or the bugs get out, littering the landscape with oily puddles. The ability of organisms to evolve provides a risk not encountered with other technologies, but many scientists believe we can limit survivability in the wild. Synthetic biology has an uphill struggle to convince the public that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Having delivered a near fatal blow to genetically modified food in Europe, pressure groups are trying to get agrofuels banned. The research community has proven far more active in trying to debate issues in public before the trouble starts. The template for this effort is the Royal Society's work to deal with the fears around nanotechnology, which many in academia consider to have worked well.

One of the components is to have ethicists and social scientists involved in every synthetic-biology project. However, there is a tendency to look at these ethical additions simply as being tick-box requirements to get the research funded.

A further problem is that everything is being lumped under the ethics banner when most of the issues revolve around commercialisation and exploitation. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan reckons the nascent industry could run into trouble if it does not separate research from commercial ethics. The core of the problem, Caplan says, is that much of biological research denies vitalism: the research is removing the distinction between the living and the inanimate.

"You can do cost/benefit analyses until you turn blue," says Caplan. "But if this guy thinks synthetic biology is bad because [it means] he has no soul, then he doesn't care how many cost/benefit analyses you produce for the technology."

This may be the wall that synthetic biology hits as it reveals the gulf between belief and evidence.

Chris Edwards, E&T electronics editor

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