[title size=”4″]A dismal failure – or a slow-burn success? Under discussion is not a glitzy new company with disenchanted investors but a substantial industry promoting science and engineering to the young. By Peter Marsh[/title]
“Britain has roughly 600 organisations trying to encourage more children and teenagers to study or take jobs in technology-based disciplines. The industry spends tens of millions of pounds annually. It has been stimulated by concerns about what appear crippling shortages of key skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).If the skills gap can be reduced then UK businesses in many fields, including manufacturing, will be in a better position to compete, and more young people will be set for rewarding jobs – jobs they might not know about or be qualified for.
However, according to UK Engineering 2016, which was published in March 2017, many schemes promoting engineering related disciplines in schools fall well short of what is needed.
[title size=”2″]Not good enough[/title]
“The variety and overlap [of different promotional schemes] is bewildering and wasteful… the net effect is not making sufficient impact,” says Prof John Uff in the study, which was commissioned by IET, ICE and IMechE; three of the UK’s leading professional engineering institutions.
He singles out for rebuke promotional body EngineeringUK, one of the biggest groups trying to boost the numbers of people entering STEM careers. “Serious criticisms have been voiced as to the performance and outcomes achieved by EngineeringUK in its educational activities, which are criticised as ineffective, particularly the campaigns to inspire school children to
take up STEM studies.”
In 2015/16, EngineeringUK had a budget of almost £10m; most of its funding was contributed by senior engineers, through professional registration fees. However, others involved in the STEM promotion industry say Uff was too negative. . Optimists say there are signs that more people involved with it are improving how they liaise with others in the same field, to learn from each other and increase the benefits from individual programmes.
As a result, according to this view, perceptions among young people about engineering and related topics are gradually improving, providing more hope that the shortfall in industry entrants can be reduced. EngineeringUK – which has rebuffed most of Uff’s criticisms – says: “The trend is that engineering is increasingly seen as a desirable career and the evaluation of our engagement activity shows that with the right set of interventions…we can make a more positive impact.”
[title size=”2″]A wide range of funding[/title]
The promotional schemes take many forms, from enlisting entrepreneurs to talk to children in classrooms to science fairs where youngsters try out new ideas in, for instance, biotech or electronics. While there are some big spenders, many organisations have annual budgets of £100,000 or less and many say they struggle to raise money. In 2017, Young Engineers, a well-known charity agency founded in 1983 and which claimed it had worked with 1m students in thousands of schools, went into liquidation after running out of money.
One of the best funded promotional schemes recently has been the £3m Your Life programme, backed by corporations including BAE Systems, Shell, Rio Tinto and Ford. The three-year programme, which finished at the end of 2017, has made extensive use of social media, with embedded short video clips, to convey positive messages about STEM careers to young people.
One highly ambitious goal set by Your Life was to trigger a 50% increase between 2014 and 2017 in students taking A-level physics and maths in England. In the event, the numbers rose by 12% and 16% in the two years.
Edwina Dunn, chair of Your Life, says the programme nonetheless has produced valuable lessons; where the project has been able to connect science to the things young people enjoy it has achieved good results, in stimulating young people to take seriously a tech-based career. Examples include projects that use video and other material to link the moves made by ballet dancers to physics, or use maths to explain how to win at Pokémon Go. For the future, Dunn is hoping to find a further source of funding to maintain and strengthen Future Finder, web-based software built by Your Life that connects A-Level students with potential jobs.
[title size=”2″]Learning lessons and moving forward[/title]
It seems likely that some of the lessons from the Your Life project will be absorbed in another scheme being funded by sizeable donations from industry and which will also entail widespread applications of social media and video. This is the Engineering Talent Project (ETP)being spearheaded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in collaboration with others including the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme, run by EngineeringUK.
The project is due to start in early 2018. A key aim is to stimulate a greater understanding among young people of the jobs of a modern engineer – anything from building Formula 1 racing cars to using new materials to design orthopaedic implants or even jet engines. People behind the scheme reckon it will need £1m-£2m to start up, with further sums necessary to keep it going on a year by year basis.
The ETP programme will tie in closely with another project starting in 2018 – the Year of Engineering, being orchestrated by government departments to feature the work of engineers in a range of jobs. Other schemes that have been organised or unveiled in recent years – for instance the series of university technical colleges designed to boost numbers studying technical subjects and plans for a new £50m university in Hertford to focus on engineering – all seem likely to boost interest in technology based careers.
[title size=”2″]How to be successful[/title]
Claire Cooke heads a long-term scheme called Whynotchemeng at the Institution of Chemical Engineers. It has led to a fourfold increase since 2001 in the annual number of students studying chemical engineering at universities.
Cooke says the key to future programmes is to work on reducing the barriers to people going into engineering related disciplines – such as perceptions of low status or the feeling that engineering is ill-suited to girls. She expresses cautious optimism: I think the situation has already improved so hopefully things can only get better.”
TEENTECH: PROMOTING ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGY
Maggie Philbin, OBE, insists that employers and schools should consider knowledge of science and engineering as part of a number of desirable attributes for young people entering the world of work. In 2008 the former TV presenter started TeenTech, a company designed to link up with secondary school pupils to encourage them to discover new ideas particularly but not exclusively in technology. “We want to help students [prepare for] the often invisible careers of tomorrow,” Philbin said. Teentech has a budget of about £300,000 a year. Up to 2017, about 6,500 students had participated directly in its activities.
These include school events – where students and teachers get the chance to meet entrepreneurs and technology and industry leaders and work on “hands on” applications of technology subjects – and awards to recognise innovation. In the awards programme, pupils operate in teams of up to three, guided by industry volunteers. The challenge is to design new gadgets or services to make life “better, simpler, safer or more fun”.
TeenTech tries to give people new insights– such as how to “mine” large amounts of data to extract results – that they can apply to a range of lessons or projects not all concerned with science or engineering. In addition to these projects TeenTech reckons it has “indirect interaction” – through teachers using its materials with other classes, students running assemblies to share their TeenTech experiences and people looking at its website or other material without face to face contact – with a further 75,000 young people per year.
The company says it has a close relationship with about 500 schools. Philbin maintains that it’s important not just to engage with motivated children from well-off areas. “We prioritise work with schools in disadvantaged areas to open up the world of science and engineering,” she said. She is also keen that TeenTech monitors what it does to gauge how successful it is and to makes changes when required. “There are many things we did initially that we realised we could be doing better.”
“There are many things we did initially that we realised we could be doing better.”
WORK-WISE: Promoting Engineering and Technology to young people
The Work-Wise Foundation promotes science and technology in a specific region: South Yorkshire.
Work-Wise focuses on the area in and around Sheffield, one of most technologically rich areas of Britain but where many employers struggle to attract suitably qualified people as recruits. Despite this, many youngsters leave local schools lacking the skills they need to get good jobs, close by their homes. Link these facts and the need to connect the two sets of requirements becomes obvious. The foundation was set up in 2011 as an initiative between companies and education groups in the region. It spends just over £100,000 a year and John Barber, Work-wise cofounder, says there are encouraging signs that it is having an impact.
“As well as talking about wanting to be footballers, policemen, nurses and singers the children [locally] are talking about wanting to become engineers and designers.”nBarber
says he had a letter recently from one ex Work-wise student “thanking us for our support as he wouldn’t now be at Cambridge reading engineering without the programme and the confidence and opportunity it gave him”. Work-wise organises projects both in primary and secondary schools. It has started “family learning sessions “where parents are invited to join their sons and daughters in finding out about new ideas.
Among its programmes, the foundation recruits what it calls “student ambassadors”. These are 13- to 16-years-olds who spend time at local companies involved in science and technology. Boosted by this extra level of understanding, the ambassadors are then expected to talk to the others in their schools and social circle about their experiences.
A second scheme is called Get up to Speed. Based around an annual event at the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham the event brings together young people and adults to introduce them to ideas and opportunities in science, technology and manufacturing in what the organisers hope is an entertaining and stimulating way.
DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY ASSOCIATION: PROMOTING ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE
Virtually every organisation promoting engineering and related topics in schools says raising finance is a big headache. The Design and Technology Association (DaTA) has felt this more than most.
The association works mainly with teachers to devise new ways to educate pupils in design and technology. Its remit includes suggesting changes to the official schools curriculum, covering primary schools to A-level. In 2016 the 14-person charity spent £1.4m on its programmes but suffered a loss of £364,000. Much of this was due to a big fall in the money from donations and legacies, from £393,000 the year before to just £149,000. A government grant of £58,000 in 2015 was not repeated. Julie Nugent, the association’s outgoing chief executive, is leaving at the end of 2017; a successor has yet to be named.
“Part of my role has been to restructure the business operations to ensure a much sounder financial footing for the future.” She says. The charity’s deficit will be “significantly reduced” in 2017 and that in a few years it will be showing a “small surplus”. She points to some good results from projects that bring industry professionals into classrooms to help teachers and pupils understand how businesses works, fitting into conventional lessons.
An evaluation of 800 young people participating in these programmes showed a significant increase in the numbers choosing to study design and technology at GCSE compared to what would have been expected.
The pupils gained in other ways, says Nugent, showing improved levels of confidence, resilience and team working skills. Nugent says the association has worked on forming ties with a range of commercial and government groups to ensure how it influences teaching reflects the interests of employers. The association has good relationships, for instance, with carmakers Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover and the UK Space Agency and Intellectual Property Office.