Investing in the future

Published:  18 November, 2016

Dr Susan Scurlock, CEO and founder of Primary and Secondary Engineer explains why and how we should encourage children to consider careers in STEM related professions, and the importance of smart manufacturing and engineering in doing this.

The speed of change is dramatic. So fast in-fact, we consumers are not only oblivious but also ungrateful. Our expectations of technology, our impatience for the latest upgrade, newest device, accessibility of control is growing exponentially. In order to meet our needs and at a price we like, industry is moving to embrace industry 4.0 with all its tantalising promises of Smart Industries and Manufacturing.

My role within Primary Engineer is to lead and develop our programmes; considering the needs of education providers and industry but most of all the potential of our greatest asset, young people. My first real encounter with Industry 4.0 was attending the Annual Engineering Lecture at University of Strathclyde where Siemens CEO, Juergen Maier, talked about the next industrial revolution, or is it evolution? Whatever your position, there are two things that are undeniable – it will happen and you will need a skilled work force to implement it.

Education sits at the heart of everything: whether you are an industry leader looking to develop employees, a teacher looking to educate a class of 30 or a parent ensuring your child is socially able to live a healthy and productive life, however, nothing happens in isolation. For society to understand industry, industry must engage society beyond consumerism. It must become an educator of the possibilities and potential, a harbinger of change, whether it be on an individual level or a worldwide one.

Industry is not alone when looking to the future, so do primary pupils – is this a surprising statement? I can quite comfortably say that primary children are creative, inventive, socially aware designers. They look at problems both large and small with the innocence you would expect of children and yet the ingenuity of professional engineers and entrepreneurs.

One of our programmes, the Leaders Award, runs up and down the UK asking pupils ‘What would you do if you could be an engineer?’. The project invites engineers into the classroom to talk about the creative process of engineering, problem solving, and finding solutions. The programme has been so successful, Universities are building some of their designs. The University of Strathclyde built the ‘Shopping Trolley for the Elderly’ designed by Aidan at the age of 11 to solve his Grandmothers struggles with her shopping. UCL are to build The Blue Tooth Walking Stick for the visually impaired designed by a 5-year-old which links a walking-stick via Bluetooth to the owners’ phone to vibrate along the route they need to take.

We have seen a range of solutions; originating from personal observations at home and reaching out to a world wide scale/market. In most cases the assumption that there is or will be technology to realise their inventions is central – they believe industry and engineers can do almost anything – including, one of my personal favourites, satellites to deflect sunlight onto Scotland to cure vitamin D deficiency.

Too often the excitement of industry is hidden behind a building’s façade, becoming just a length of wall that people pass on their way elsewhere. The industry of the future will need to build on the foundations of the current education system. In the past, education followed the need of industry. Derek Gillard’s ‘Education in England: a brief history’ notes it was ‘The Industrial Revolution in the last quarter of the 18th Century which spurred the state into providing a national education system.’.

Our current education system is, in my view, creaking along. Pupil choice, whilst central to the ethos of the system, isn’t always reflected in the options they are presented with. Each level of education, from early years, primary, secondary, higher and further, employ different pedagogical approaches which in many ways do not reflect or build on prior learning.

The communication between industry and education is fractured; whilst both acknowledge the need for dialogue and interaction, neither is quite sure what form it should take. The Careers and Enterprise Company, Developing the Young Workforce, Skills Investment Plans, Learning Skills and Innovation Partnership (all relatively new) focus on the need for young people to gain STEM skills relative to the needs of industry, promoting a stronger relationship.

Half of the battle is inspiration and the other half aspiration. There is a need to inspire children with the art of the possible but instilling the aspirations in children, that they can be a part of such a technologically advanced world, is equal in its challenges. The learning of practical skills and academic understanding need to have inspirational, real-world contexts. But we also need to build pupil confidence by making them aware of the skills they are gaining and their relevance to the future of industry.

Today in the UK, upwards of 4.5million children attend state funded primary schools and 3.2million attend secondary schools. In the broadest of terms, in 10 years’ time, the youngest of these primary pupils will be 15, the eldest 21 and secondary pupils, 22 – 26. Whilst the investment in technology is huge and rapid, the investment in the workforce should not be left to itself. Industry has a significant role to play in education.

There is no silver bullet. The engagement between industry and education requires focus and a plan. The school curriculum is full, primary teachers are stretched to cover 12 compulsory subjects, and engineering isn’t one of them. A year ago we launched a Masters Level course in Engineering STEM Learning for teachers to consider how to develop engineering strategies into their teaching after interviewing engineers and reflecting on their own teaching practice. The initial results are outstanding, teachers are seeing the relevance and opportunities engineering brings to all ages and subject matters, and how it can be used to inspire and educate.

Primary Engineer started with a very simple premise, if you want more engineers, teach primary teachers how to teach maths and science practically by linking them to Technology and Engineering. Over the years we have developed numerous interrelated strategies: teacher training, masters level courses, projects and two pupil focused Institutions all linked to local engineers and engineering companies. We may not make everyone into an engineer, but those that don’t will have a greater understanding of the art of the possible as we move into the next industrial Revolution.

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