Children are natural engineers, say the report's authors, but the education system often stifles these tendencies

Teach children to think like engineers says report

A radical shift in the way children are taught from primary school upwards is needed to nurture their natural talents as engineers, a new study says.

There is virtually no teaching of engineering at primary school level and the quality at secondary school level is highly variable, according to a report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering due to be launched later today.

While teaching at the higher education level is often good and frequently world class, the report notes, a lack of encouragement of children’s natural inquisitiveness and problem solving capacity at an early age means the supply of students with an engineering mind-set to degree level is well below what is needed to fend of the looming skills shortage.

The introduction of the new National Curriculum from September presents an opportunity to redesign the education system to cultivate learners who think like engineers, according to the authors, though such a project will also require a major professional development program for teachers.

“As groups who turn up at schools to run engineering days or projects have shown, you can do an awful lot with very basic equipment. I don’t think there’s a huge price tag attached to this, but I’m convinced there’s a huge mind set shift attached to this,” lead author Professor Bill Lucas, from the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real World Learning, told E&T.

“Right now I know there are wonderful exemplars at some schools, but there’s a huge professional development capacity issue. For me, we need all the employers, engineering educators and high profile role models advancing this type of mind-set shift and putting they’re shoulder to the wheel to start building capacity.”

Young children are natural born engineers, according to the report, constantly seeking to understand the properties of materials as they engage with the world around them, but as they grow up the education system moves them away from practical learning to become more theoretical and abstract, often extinguishing their natural engineering abilities.

After interviewing a variety of engineering educators and practising engineers the researchers identified six ‘engineering habits of mind’ they would like to see embedded in a redesigned education system: systems thinking, adapting, problem finding, creative problem solving, visualising and improving.

“I think it’s the juxtaposition of them all in one head,” said Lucas. “You could make a case that in some other professions some of these are very important, and I would agree. I think it’s the unique blend of these in engineers that makes them, as a psychologist, particularly interesting and useful as contributors to society.”

Teaching methods to invoke these habits need to be based on the engineering design process and focus on the tasks engineers carry out day to day, says Lucas, such as problem finding as well as solving, testing, evaluating and presenting to an audience. Challenges faced by students must be authentic, real-world problems and students need to work in a collaborative way to solve them.

And from speaking to engineers during their research the team found considerable anecdotal evidence that many engineering graduates fare well in other sectors, suggesting that the changes to the education system may not benefit only engineering. “You might deduct that some of the habits of mind they have are extremely attractive in other lines of work,” said Lucas.

Professor Helen Atkinson, chair of the academy’s Standing Committee for Education and Training, said: “This insightful work suggests that even with an improved public engagement with engineering, our current education system in the UK does not sufficiently develop the habits of mind of young people to encourage them to pursue further study towards engineering careers.

“The Academy is grateful to the authors for bringing a new perspective on an important issue for educating future generations of engineers in the UK.”

The report ‘Thinking like an engineer – Implications for the education system’ is available for download here.

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