A wrecking ball smashing the E in STEM

Comment: why it's time to take the 'E' out of STEM

There's been much debate on how to change perceptions of engineering, but it's only by marketing it as a creative and humanitarian discipline that we can beat the skills gap, argues Lesley Paterson.

It is widely acknowledged that engineering in the UK is facing a skills shortage. Figures suggest that to meet future demand the country will need at least 1.82 million more people with engineering skills by 2022. We have a challenge on our hands. Business leaders, policy makers, industry bodies and education organisations recognise the need to address engineering skills shortages, but the discussion on how to do this is ongoing.

At the Royal Academy of Engineering we recently held a platform debate on whether a new approach is needed. Six leaders from industry and education faced a packed auditorium to discuss whether 'Engineering should be rebranded as a creative and humanitarian discipline, rather than a scientific and mathematically-driven endeavour'. In other words, we considered whether we should take the 'E' out of 'STEM'.

It's clear that there are many reasons to keep the E in STEM; it would be hard to deny the connection between all four topics in the acronym for 'science, technology, engineering and mathematics'. The speakers opposing the motion argued that it is the fact that engineering is so rooted in science and mathematics that has guided humanity from the Ice Age through the Industrial Revolution to where society is today. 'Standing on the shoulders of giants' is a frequently used phrase, but for many, it is the perfect description of how engineering relies on the foundation stones of science and maths to succeed.

However, is it limiting to embed engineering within science, technology and maths? For me, engineering is not about maths and technology, it's about people, and designing things to make people's lives easier and better. We have engineering to thank for our clean water, reliable electricity, the buildings we live and work in, the transport systems we use to move around, as well as many advances in healthcare. And none of those would have been possible without much creative thinking.

Those speaking for the motion argued that the STEM acronym has the effect of camouflaging the impact of engineering under a cover of science and maths, when it is actually the discipline that connects science, technology and maths with society. Engineering is an innovative, collaborative undertaking, but we don't show that clearly enough to future generations.

Perceptions are gradually improving, but they're not changing fast enough. We need a proper shake-up if we are going to beat the skills gap. That means breaking down the barriers between the arts and sciences, and doing so from an early age. In England's education system, we insist that young people choose between science and the arts; they must be logical or creative, not both. The reality is that engineers are both logical and creative and we need to make that clear. By submerging engineering within STEM, we might be contributing to an arts/science divide that is both unhelpful and false.

During the debate, each side made a strong case, and the result of the final vote was a precise 50/50 split. To me, this demonstrates the complexity of the challenge that lies ahead, and the validity of contrasting points of view. Engineering is facing a number of challenges from how to attract the best graduates, to increasing education and training provision, to the enduring issue of attracting more women to the profession.

Efforts to rebrand engineering have been made. Musician and tech ambassador Will.i.am has tackled the lack of creativity, by rebranding STEM to incorporate the arts as STEAM. But even that seems like a shopping list of careers, failing to communicate that engineering in fact incorporates all aspects.

It's obvious that there is no single solution to the skills shortage, but maintaining the status quo is not going to tackle the issue. We need to bring engineering to life, and communicate its breadth, depth and scope. I feel that we can't do that while it remains constrained by its current STEM umbrella.

Dr Lesley Paterson is head of communications and engagement at the Royal Academy of Engineering (www.raeng.org.uk)

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