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Comment: engineering skills crisis in schools?

Young people disliking maths is perhaps understandable, says Derek Newport. But when students fail to see the point of it, that’s really worrying.

Visiting secondary schools regularly over the past 15 years, nine years as an adviser under the Young Enterprise Initiative followed by six as a STEM ambassador, I’ve often asked students what they think about mathematics. Answers generally fall into one of two categories – “I don’t like maths” or “I don’t see the point; what use is it?”

I’m not too concerned if young people dislike maths. After all, not everybody likes the music of Mozart, or John Rutter, or even One Direction. These are choices. On the other hand the second type of response does concern me, and should worry teachers and careers advisers. It may be at the root of the UK’s descent from eighth to 28th place in the international table comparing maths skills of 15-year-olds.

The increasing numbers of schools signing up to STEM initiatives appear to be making excellent progress in encouraging pupils to opt for vocational careers such as plumbing, vehicle servicing, electrical installation and repair work. But the basic education for these trades is delivered principally within the design and technology curriculum where the level of mathematics is relatively low and the majority of pupils are more often motivated by hands-on activities than by studying the science and mathematics behind a project.

I can’t recall any invitations for engineering ambassador visits coming my way from maths or physics departments. One conclusion I’ve drawn from this is that teachers generally don’t know the difference between an engineer and a technician.

In many cases it doesn’t matter. Whether you ask for an engineer or a technician to repair a cooker, you just want it restored to effective operation. I doubt that the media ever use the terms consultant physician, general practitioner or nurse inappropriately. However, they confuse engineer and technician. Companies advertising for technical staff also frequently use the two terms and it’s often only by reading the qualifications required or the job description that this becomes clear.

These distinctions are not intended to attach a different worth to these occupations. As in the medical professions they are all equally needed; they just don’t need the same kind of education. There’s one situation where the distinction is crucial however: students are deciding which subjects to take at A level and students aspiring to a career as a graduate engineer need to be urged to take maths and physics.

It’s perhaps not suprising that teachers generally don’t understand the educational ramifications. Many enter teaching direct from university or college and may have little knowledge upon which to offer careers advice. It was this situation that led me to write a book, ‘Savour the Fruits of Mathematics’.
It isn’t aimed at replacing established text books because it explains not just how maths works but also why is it important, especially in engineering. It’s aimed at teachers of STEM subjects, particularly those teaching GCSE students, and at students about to decide which subjects to take at A level.

One of the challenges I faced was how to cover an adequate range of engineering cases while keeping the maths within the scope of the GCSE syllabus. I could have excluded example problems, but felt they had to be included to validate the examples. I decided to extend the maths beyond the GCSE syllabus, but recommend that students merely skip through the mathematics examples.

Introducing EngineeringUK’s annual ‘State of Engineering’ report on the profession for 2014, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Dr Vince Cable warned that: “The UK will need around 87,000 graduate-level engineers per year over the next ten years. 2013 was 36,000 short of this.”

Derek Newport is a chartered engineer and IET Fellow.

‘Savour the Fruits of Mathematics’ is priced £9.99 plus £1.50 postage and is available via DerekNewport@aol.com.

An ebook with a recommended price of £2.60 can be purchased from from Amazon, Apple and Kobo stores.

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