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Girls in engineering: creatively engaging young female minds

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The skills shortage in engineering is now recognised. Projects are becoming embedded within schools that have tried to use a combination of creativity and industry to enhance the image of engineering to young children - and particularly to girls.

It was two years ago that Engineering UK released its ‘State of the Nation’ report, which highlighted the crisis in the UK engineering sector. Quite simply there was a shortage of engineers, with new recruits to the industry numbering less than those leaving. Despite the engineering sector bursting to grow, it was being held back by a shortage of man power. And woman power.

One of the conclusions of the report was that we need 69,000 new engineers per annum, over and above the current flow through apprenticeships and the higher education system, which currently stands at about 46,000 a year. The report states: “The engineering community must recognise and address the fact that, despite numerous campaigning initiatives over the past 30 years, there has been no significant advance in the diversity or make-up of the sector. In particular, the gender participation of women into engineering must change.”

More than doubling the numbers in engineering is difficult when most of one half of the population, the female half, does not engage in it. According to a 2017 IET survey 89 per cent of engineers are men, so recruiting more women is the most obvious starting point in solving the problem. Chief executive of WISE (Women in Science & Engineering) Helen Wollaston says: “Getting the numbers we need is the primary driver but there is a growing recognition that diverse teams – not just women but people from different communities, cultures and ages – produce better results.”

Chief executive Mark Carne summed it up in Network Rail’s gender pay gap report:  “I want Network Rail to reflect the people and communities we serve – not just because it is the right thing to do but because gender balance and diversity generally are critical to us becoming the highest-performing organisation we can be.”

While the overarching problem is apparent, as the EngineeringUK report points out, the solutions are not. In general the instinct for pointing accusational fingers at employers, schools, universities, local and central government and even society as a whole has been abandoned, as it achieves little. There is also realisation that the silver bullet doesn’t exist; it requires commitment from many different stakeholders. And this commitment must be long term, particularly when it comes to fundamental changes in the way children are brought through the education system.

“The thing is you can’t just make an impact at A Level or post-16, the pipeline begins earlier,” claims Bharvina Bharkhada, Education and Skills policy adviser at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation.

So how do you encourage young people to take an interest in engineering? “Quite often kids don’t realise they are doing engineering, so it’s how you tap into that,” Bharkhada says. “Twelve-year-old girls, and boys, are not necessarily interested in what a middle-aged man has to say. You’ve got to find the right people. Most companies will have an apprentice or a graduate. That is the person who should be going back into schools so that when a child is sitting there they think ‘I can be like that. I can relate to that’. And they can see the journey they need to take to get there. For girls it is even better if it is a woman!”

An older male employee can obviously work if they are a good communicator, but the chances of losing the message through the generational divide are greater, and can reinforce STEM as the ‘geeky option’, rather than unveiling it as the interesting one.

When so many of the issues regarding the gender divide are deeply entrenched in UK society, it is clear that any initiatives will take time to pay dividends. Fortunately, some projects have made it clear they are in it for the long term. Two of them, Teen Tech and Primary Engineer, are run by inspirational women who relish the opportunity of getting more girls into engineering.

Maggie Philbin rose to fame as a children’s TV presenter in the 1980s before joining the ‘Tomorrow’s World’ team and for the last decade has been behind Teen Tech, which started out as a standalone event to engage teenagers in technology. It was based in Berkshire, where Philbin was working as a radio reporter, but the success of the inaugural event followed by other positive events around the country forced the Teen Tech team to re-evaluate its objectives.

“I thought we were running one event,” says Philbin. “It was never intended to become ‘a thing’. We had a choice to make. I’d seen a lot of initiatives which were very good, but they were like flares in the night that shone brightly and then disappeared. It was all happening in silos and it really needed to be a bit more collaborative to have any serious impact.” Another focus was to gather evidence about different ways of engaging and different elements of teaching because it is the teaching, according to Philbin, that “ultimately needs to change to really turn the dial so that more kids benefit. Everything else I think is around the edges.”

Teen Tech is a series of initiatives that are age-appropriate, hands-on, for the most part employer-led, and cater for children from eight to 19. Projects can kick off with a simple classroom presentation or site visits to host engineering companies. Large-scale events – like the Teen Tech year finale in April at the Emirates Stadium in London, attended by over 800 children – are packed full of hands-on workshops. The employers who run these events can be global giants, such as Microsoft and Atkins, right down to start-ups, but most are SMEs.

“There’s also a very heavy emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Philbin. “It helps young people understand that you can go and work for someone – and that’s a great way of getting experience – but you can also develop your own thing, and we run innovation sessions to cater for this.”

Getting children to think like entrepreneurs provides them with a positive impression of what an engineering career could offer and indeed provides youthful energy and imagination to the profession itself. But, as Teen Tech recognises by starting its programmes for pre-teen children, the first hurdle is for children to begin to think like engineers from an early age. Only by doing this will they appreciate the breadth of opportunities for their future. Primary Engineer is a scheme that was launched back in 2005 that aims to engage children from a very early age.

Primary Engineer has extended to Early Years Engineer, which targets children as young as three. Founder Susan Scurlock, who was formerly both an art teacher and head of ICT (“because I could draw on a computer!”) saw the significance of ‘engineering’ as a way of thinking, rather than just an academic subject. She says: “For me it was about the mathematical skills, the scientific skills, the problem-solving and the fact that it was hands-on. Given the pressures on children the whole idea of losing yourself in designing and making something practical and in response to a problem is ideal. It’s a set of skills that is often the most sought after in any career. If you use engineering skill sets it doesn’t matter what career you follow, you will be potentially the top of your game.”

Consequently, the projects are intended to include every child in the class, not just a handful at an afterschool club. “That way, you can capture the kids at the back, or the kids who are not necessarily engaged, and stretch the kids that are. It’s important that everybody takes part,” says Scurlock. “Our projects are particularly good at bringing the best out of kids that wouldn’t necessarily succeed. What you want to be able to see is children making the best of things, having that grit and determination to see things through, even if they keep failing, because part of our project is asking kids, what went wrong? If it’s not been going wrong then you’re not doing it right.”

Primary Engineers works by training teachers how to deliver a project in the classroom in a way that fits in with the curriculum, linking engineering with science, literacy, creativity and other subjects. Ideally teachers and indeed whole schools can embed the programme and repeat it annually.  “That way,” adds Scurlock, “they’re bringing in different engineers each year. It’s part of the fabric of their year, and that’s a really, really significant part of what’s being done.”

Participating schools can get involved in the Leaders Awards where children interview engineers, find a problem and draw up a solution to it. This year 37,500 children took part along with 902 engineers, 2,820 primary school teachers and 311 secondary school teachers. Engineers and engineering companies can get involved just by participating in a single webinar, which can be a useful way of reaching more remote schools, to leading and grading projects.

‘Getting the numbers we need is the primary driver but there is a growing recognition that diverse teams - not just women but people from different communities, cultures and ages - produce better results.’

Helen Wollaston

With such positive schemes running for a decade or more, shouldn’t there be an upsurge in numbers joining engineering? And with such inspiring women leading the way, shouldn’t more girls be taking maths and physics GCSEs and A Levels?

Data protection laws make it difficult to track individual students as they move up from one school to the next, although Primary Engineer is introducing its Institution to allow students to join and progress, which will make tracking easier. Tracking is the one of the curses that those working in STEM have to bear, according to David Lakin, IET head of education 5-19. However, like Primary Engineers Institution, the FIRST LEGO League does offer continuity between primary and secondary school and so helps keep budding engineers in the fold.

FIRST LEGO  League, which is run by the IET in the UK and Ireland, is a global robotics competition and the largest STEM competition in the world. This season (2017/18) saw 35,000 teams go through the global programme and 250,000 individual students. The UK and Ireland has over 600 teams and involves around 7,200 children. The UK and Ireland final is the biggest event the IET runs, with 54 teams from 45 regional tournaments (2017/18), 150 volunteers, and is one of the biggest productions for IET.tv.

Secondly, the holistic approach that primary schools can take to teaching is far more difficult in the subject-centric regime of secondary school, where exams are all-​important. League tables, introduced by Tony Blair’s government, were intended to identify schools that needed more support, rather than to punish them. Philbin says: “You’ve got schools and teachers, and unfortunately students, jumping through hoops to make sure that their school is well placed in those league tables. But it’s not necessarily in the best interest, I don’t think, of the student or the teacher. I’m not saying that we have to completely reinvent education, but I think there is a lot of truth in ‘you get what you measure’.”

Lakin believes this problem goes right back to primary education. He says: “At the moment one hour 24 minutes is dedicated to science every week – which is pitiful, it is nowhere near enough. Part of the reason for that is the teacher’s limited ability to teach science and they obviously don’t recognise it as engineering at primary level. So they do very little D&T and focus on maths. We aim to provide activities and competitions that expose and link them to engineering.”

Thirdly, there is still an image problem. Philbin says: “I think it’s very hard for any young person, girl or boy, to actually know when you talk about an engineer, what are you talking about. If you talk about a doctor or a lawyer or a vet, you’re quite clear what that is in your head. Building isn’t just about bricklaying... we try and show kids how to shape the way your community and wider city works, whether you’re building apps to connect people, whether you’re thinking about town planning and the implications of everything from an extra runway, to a new road, to traffic calming, whatever.”

‘Go out and engage with schools. It’s a challenge and can be difficult but the benefits are enormous.’

Maggie Philbin

Finally, according to Scurlock, is the notion that the die is already cast. She says: “My feeling is that that we set too much store on the idea that children have a choice – option choices when they are selecting what GCSEs they’re doing. I think that is a fallacy. I think that children are, more often than not, told what subjects they are going to be doing.” Schools, she argues, often fit students into the capabilities they have on offer.

The situation is more acute when it comes to maintaining girls’ interest in STEM subjects. Both Primary Engineer and Teen Tech find that overall participation shows an almost 50:50 gender split and when it comes to awards finalists it is usually girls who outnumber the boys. So why, according to the IET’s survey last year, do women still only make up 11 per cent of the workforce?

EEF’s Bharkhada believes it is probably a combination of factors: “Peer pressure is one. Teachers not feeling equipped to talk about what a career in manufacturing or engineering is about, more so for girls. If you are good at science then girls are often guided towards biological science rather than physical science – I think we need to move away from that and let kids explore what they enjoy. Also work experience was really rewarding and even if it doesn’t help a child work out what they do want to do, it can help decide what they don’t.”

In terms of direct impact, Philbin uses the example of one school that has worked with Teen Tech. She says: “When we started work with them, 43 per cent of girls chose physics and now 87.5 per cent are choosing physics. That’s because they can see the point of it.”

Scurlock agrees that getting this message across, the context for engineering, is crucial for both genders. She likens it to shopping, where girls will go into dozens of shops, try things on, compare materials and prices, decide what it will and won’t go with, before they find what they want. Boys will go and buy the first thing in the first shop. “That’s exactly how it is with careers,” she believes. “If girls haven’t had the opportunity to mentally try on a career, they’re never going to choose something they’ve never seen before. For me, that’s why it’s so important that engineers are part of that story for kids as soon as possible, because those girls need to try that on, those boys need to be informed about what it is they’re getting in to so that they don’t drop out later on when it’s not quite what they thought it was.”  

She does add a note of caution to the current drive to encourage girls into engineering: “I wouldn’t want to put the boys off to be honest, because I think the difficulty we’ve got with gender in engineering is, if we give too much to encourage the girls, I think we will severely cause a problem later on with the boys. I think they’ll be a ticking timebomb if I’m honest. We have to be a bit careful.”

Helen Wollaston sums up the main problem with recruiting more girls into engineering: “It is a societal issue rather than fundamental differences between the genders. We know this because there are far more women in engineering in other parts of the world.”

But rather than being a negative, she sees this as an opportunity: “As well as showing girls that women like them enjoy engineering, talking about the contribution engineers make to society is a great way to inspire them because many girls want to do something which makes a difference to people’s lives.”

Faraday Challenge

Space Telescope

One of the highlights of the IET Education 5-19 team’s year is the finals of the Faraday Challenge Day, which, this year, will be held at Thorpe Park – maybe the winner will have developed the rollercoaster of the future.

However, plans are already under way for the 2018-19 challenge, which will kick off in September 2018. Aimed at 12-13-year-olds (Year 8), this year’s challenge will partner with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), taking a closer look at the engineering challenges associated with using the JWST and what you can do with results. By taking part in the Faraday Challenge Day 2018-19, students will gain an understanding and appreciation for various engineering disciplines, alongside a wider understanding of the mission of the JWST.

The challenge days are completely free for UK schools. IET’s David Lakin believes it is not easy to get into schools sometimes, particularly in areas of social deprevation and where parents are unlikely to have gone into higher education. However, with around 4,000 secondary schools in the UK it could be that the answer is fairly close to home. He says: “We can start from within. The IET’s 168,000 members, although they may already be ‘the converted’, what influence could they have on their children’s schools? That is an important area. We have a wealth of resources for teachers to use – get your school’s teachers to ask the IET for these resources.”

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