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‘All young people should be enabled to understand what engineering is’: Hilary Leevers

Image credit: Big Bang Fair

CEO of EngineeringUK, Dr Hilary Leevers outlines the work being done by her organisation to inspire and engage with ‘tomorrow’s engineers’ in the 11-to-14-year-old age bracket and beyond.

“All young people should be enabled to understand what engineering is and be motivated to engage with it as a career pathway,” says Hilary Leevers. It’s a moral argument, contends the CEO of EngineeringUK, that during the coronavirus pandemic, public health crisis has become “more important than ever. We are hearing, from listening to professional engineering institutions, our corporate members and others we work with, that this argument has only become stronger over the past six months.”

There is real industry-wide concern, says Leevers, that “some groups that are historically under-represented in engineering are also those that have been most hard hit by the pandemic.” These groups include, “young people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, certain ethnic minority groups, rural and isolated communities, special needs schools, as well as schools with low attendance. Some attendance figures, particularly in the north-west, are as low as 60 per cent. These are the young people who need that extra support and boost.”

One of the ways in which EngineeringUK engages with the ‘future generation of engineers’ is through programmes such as Big Bang, Neon, Tomorrow’s Engineers Code, Energy Quest and Robotics Challenge. In response to the changing face of the 2020 educational landscape resulting from public health restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, EngineeringUK was forced to rethink its approach to its flagship face-to-face event the Big Bang, which is traditionally (as its name suggests), a large and loud equivalent of a classic NEC Birmingham trade show but for young people, attracting 80,000 visitors annually from the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The organisation rapidly delivered a virtual event: ‘Big Bang Digital 2020 – science, engineering & Covid-19,’ that celebrated the “work of scientists and engineers in a pandemic, giving an inspirational and uplifting look at the role of science and engineering in a pandemic.”

Leevers describes EngineeringUK as an organisation that is at the centre of the engineering industry, “funded by the registration fees of engineers, supported by corporate members and many other partners. We’re not the run-of-the-mill charity trying to support engineering outreach. The way we are constituted and supported by engineers, with governance coming from our corporate members and professional engineering institutions including the IET, means that we are held to high account and are doing stuff that has national impact, which achieves that mission for the sector as a whole.” That mission is to “deliver against future workforce needs of the sector, and we aim to do that by informing and inspiring the next generation and increasing the number and diversity of tomorrow’s engineers.”

There are two ways in which industry combines forces with EngineeringUK, says Leevers. First is a formal relationship in which corporates “help to inform and shape our work and hold us to account on whether we are delivering against our goals. Most of our corporate members join because they believe in us: they believe in the work we are doing.”

Second, there is the opportunity to work alongside EngineeringUK to enhance its outreach into the STEM environment, “to improve the part they are playing in securing the next generation of engineers. Then there’s the opportunity to provide corporate support for specific programmes that might align with a particular need.” The biggest and most visible of these is the Big Bang programme “for which we have about 200 supporters working with us on an annual basis.”

Hilary Leevers sepia portrait - inline

Image credit: Nick Smith

 

Leevers is passionate about the organisation’s ‘sense of mission’ to engage future engineers. However, she is reluctant to describe EngineeringUK’s work as what journalists routinely tag ‘a pipeline story’. This is because she sees the analogy as mostly unhelpful, making the light-hearted point that the epithet is still fit for purpose in the plumbing industry, but that’s just about it. This is because, for Leevers, the metaphor implies unidirectionality, with the people leaving the pipe described as leaks, “which I don’t think is a good description because it is hard to imagine a leak getting back into a pipeline.”

Leevers prefers to talk about ‘pathways to engineering,’ of which, she says, there are many. “People can deviate from traditional pathways and come back in. Or they can just join the engineering pathway at a much later stage, while the people who have come along the pathways and have moved into different areas will take all the benefit of that engineering insight into those areas such as teaching or policy. I think that’s a healthier way of looking at this.” Yet, Leevers concedes, whichever vocabulary you choose to employ, the fact remains that the EngineeringUK mission is all about ‘creating contexts’ in which engineering careers can progress along those pathways.

EngineeringUK primarily focuses on the 11-to-14-year-old age group, but Leevers is quick to point out that “this isn’t the only age we are interested in,” and neither is it to imply that she thinks this is the only age group that is important in the pathways she describes.

“As an organisation, we’ve chosen to focus our activities on this group, but our research is broader than that, and we work with many other organisations who work with broader age ranges, moving into sixth form and early career opportunities. We recognise we are operating within a STEM engagement system – an education and social culture system – and all parts of that system need to be working well for us to achieve our goals.” She says she’s happy to think of EngineeringUK as one of the constituent threads in a tapestry that is moving engineering forward.

One traditional objection to the way in which engineering is taught in schools is that there is, for the moment at least, no academic subject on the curriculum identified by the term ‘engineering.’ If this lack of visibility in schools worries Leevers, she remains guardedly optimistic, preferring to state that “engineering options are actually there. They’re just not promoted, and they tend to have a vocational slant to them. Yet there is a challenge for us to make sure that these options are evident and engaging for young people.”

Most engineering engagement school children will experience, says Leevers, will come from ‘enrichment’ – an educational term that could be cynically interpreted as ‘someone else,’ particularly parents, getting involved. She doesn’t deny that “it is a real challenge for us and it’s historic.”

Leevers says that she’d “love it” if engineering were taught as a discrete subject in schools, “but there’s something more going on. It’s not just about it not being a subject in its own right because, when you think about it, there are others such as law, business or psychology that fit into the same category. You don’t have to study them at school – in fact you can’t – to pick them up later at university. There’s a good knowledge of what these subjects are.” Yet when it comes to engineering, “it’s unfortunate that it falls to good-willed organisations, some of them charities, to ensure an understanding of engineering is brought into schools.”

Leevers says when you add them all up, there are in the region of 600 such organisations involved in the sector, “that need organising to find stuff that works with young people. It would be great to see this complemented by a government-led effort to coordinate these activities so they work together as best they can.”

One of the foundations on which EngineeringUK is built is the promotion of diversity within STEM. While the notion of diversity as an end in itself has entered the mainstream of current thinking, Leevers also believes it is through diversity that “engineering can function the best it can. We need that diversity of thought and creativity. We need insight into different markets and we also need the output from engineering to be responsive to societal demands. By having good representation in the work force, we can have those things, and I think this has been accentuated during the current pandemic, during which the need to be flexible and creative is even more evident than usual. There is, I think, a huge argument that engineering cannot be at its best until we have really good representation and much greater diversity.” Leevers says diversity will also have the ‘double-sided benefit’ of addressing numerical issues such as skills shortages.

“EngineeringUK has a number of activities intended to directly reach young people though their schools and teachers primarily,” says Leevers. Arguably, the most prominent and certainly the largest of these is the Big Bang programme. Alongside this long-running initiative is Neon, a new interrogable digital platform bringing together “the UK’s best engineering experiences and inspiring careers resources to help teachers bring STEM to life with real-world examples of engineering,” presenting an opportunity to connect schools, businesses, educational establishments and students.

What this means is that teachers can now make sense of “this huge amount of information and can search it using parameters such as age-group and geographical location, to find resources that best meet their needs. Organisations can contact us with their offers, and we can take them through the process. If they meet our quality standards they then go on to the database. It’s also aligned with the Gatsby good career guidance benchmarks, which is important. It’s also clear about whether there is payment involved. It will enable schools to find what they need, while we work with all the providers to help them form a community in which they can learn from each other. It will also help teachers to plan multiple activities.”

Launched in September 2020, “Neon already has tens of thousands of users. We are really pleased with the way it helps schools to navigate through the 600 organisations working in the sector. I think we might need that kind of local nuance and range of delivery to find resources that work with all young people and get the reach we need. Until now it’s been hard to do: Neon is intended to solve that problem.”

Leevers says her over-arching concern is to make sure EngineeringUK’s initiatives are succeeding in delivering their intended impact. “Particularly this year, you could have a situation where you feel you are doing everything right, but the number of people joining the engineering pathway has decreased.” For her, success is gauged against the simple rubric of whether “there are enough engineers in the UK. We are currently challenging ourselves to a higher bar on the evaluation of our activities. It’s a shame the Big Bang fair was cancelled this year because we had brought in a much more robust evaluation methodology in which we could see the longer-term impacts on the young people coming to the fair, and we could do that by groups.”

Leevers is clear that organisations such as hers “don’t really work if we just make people who are already interested in engineering more interested in engineering.” She says real success comes when you develop that interest in young people without the predisposition. “We don’t think we are reaching those under-represented groups as well as we could be. It would be ridiculous to think that’s the case. It seems to me that there is huge scope for improvement there.”

For EngineeringUK, 2020 has been a year for “re-planning and fast thinking,” says Leevers, referring to the rapid development of digital alternatives to the organisation’s face-to-face programmes. “It’s been a horrible time. But there’s an opportunity there. It forced our hand to develop a digital offer, which is something we’d been talking about anyway, and I’d be really interested in researching the impact of digital versus face-to-face.”

For more information visit engineeringuk.com

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