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How can STEM reduce the shortfall in new graduate engineers?

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Reversing the traditional approach to teaching mathematics by putting the ‘why’ ahead of the ‘how’ can make a big difference to students’ perceptions of careers in engineering.

The acronym STEM first entered the mainstream as shorthand for ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics’ when it was used in 2001 by administrators at the US National Science Foundation. Nearly 20 years later, there’s general agreement that incorporating STEM within the secondary school curriculum has led to many more young people aspiring to pursue careers in engineering. Each year, increasing numbers of STEM ambassadors are helping teachers to engage their students in STEM activities.

At the same time, however, successive editions of EngineeringUK’s ‘The State of Engineering’ review continue to report huge shortfalls in the number of new graduate engineers, the most recent edition quoting an annual deficit of 30,000. The 2018 report, while acknowledging that not all engineers and technicians hold professional qualifications, added that it forecast a shortfall of up to 59,000 people meeting the demand for 124,000 core engineering roles requiring level 3, 4 and 4+ qualifications.

Why, one might ask, have STEM initiatives not made an impression in reducing these shortfalls?

To answer this we need to take account of the PISA international student achievement rankings for England. The latest figures have indicated a slight improvement in maths, science and reading (‘reading’ is used by PISA because the language of most OECD countries is not English).

However, the UK education system is still not educating nearly enough young people to the levels 3, 4 and 4+ that are needed by those who aspire to become graduate engineers, so it would be unfair to blame the STEM movement for these shortfalls. The teaching profession’s journals and magazines give the impression that the emphasis is now on trying to raise the standards of less able pupils, which is a commendable objective in the face of the inability to increase the number of pupils attaining levels 3, 4 and 4+.

There are other factors to consider with regard to engineering. In 20 years of visiting secondary schools, initially under the Young Enterprise Initiative and for the last 10 years as a STEM ambassador, there are two questions that I’ve regularly put to young people: “What do you think about maths?” and “What is the difference between an engineer and a technician?”

Although a few say they like maths, the vast majority reply that they either don’t like it or that they can’t see the point of it. Not liking maths is a choice, but not seeing the point of it is of great concern.

The number of pupils - and, I might add, teachers - who have offered me a credible answer to the difference between an engineer and a technician could be counted on one hand. Answers nearly always veer towards, “Technicians work with computers and technology, but engineers mend things and operate machines.”

I usually suggest that it is more helpful to cite the education required for each category of engineering career (I prefer ‘category’ to ‘grade’ because they are all worthy and necessary).

Most engineers and technicians reading this will have gained much satisfaction from their work, but won’t feel concerned that so many pupils and teachers don’t know the differences between the three categories specified in the UK-SPEC Standard for Professional Engineering Competence, or that so many young people “…don’t see the point of maths”.

Also, you may disagree with the claimed shortfalls for engineers.

Whatever your opinion, how would you like to help change the misconception of engineering, which is still not universally understood 20 years after STEM entered the national vocabulary and more than a century after some of our major engineering institutions were established?

In 2015, I wrote and published ‘Savour the Fruits of Mathematics’, a book aimed at teachers of STEM subjects, particularly those teaching GCSE students, and at students about to decide which subjects to take at A-level. It aims to answer the two questions I feel could lead to more young people opting for a career as a graduate engineer, through teachers recognising the need to mentor their pupils to study A-level maths and physics, as a first requirement.

After 18 months of further research and editing, an updated version of my book is available. This second edition has two new chapters. Chapter two now provides a summary of the educational requirements for the three categories of engineering professional, along with the training required for professional registration, from UK-SPEC. Chapter 16 covers mathematical modelling, which is a recurrent theme in the AS Maths curriculum. Chapters 3 to 15 mostly start with an engineering scenario, such as a rocket trajectory; a Formula 1 racing car; an intensive care unit, and televising a football match, followed by a relevant maths example, thus introducing why - before how - mathematics works.

If you have children who are at secondary school, or you serve as a STEM ambassador or are a school governor, you would be doing our profession a valuable service if you could make my book and its message known.

Derek Newport is a chartered engineer and IET Fellow. The new edition of ‘Savour the Fruits of Mathematics’ (£14 + postage) is available from him at DerekNewport@aol.com and will be stocked by Nantwich Bookshop and the 'NULC Made Here' shop in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

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