Monday, 23 March 2015

ENGINEERING EDUCATION, EVERYONE?

There are people around who are worried about the state of engineering education.  But engineering education is not just for students sitting in classrooms and lecture halls. Engineering education is something that is needed outside our schools, colleges and universities – to improve understanding of an activity of fundamental importance to society in all its aspects, yes – Engineering.  We need our young people, teachers, parents and families, media workers, civil servants and politicians to know what engineering is about.

Why?  So that we can get more of our best young people working as engineers, encouraged in that aspiration by society, so we can meet the challenges of the future – challenges of Energy, Food, Water, Transport, Communication, Buildings, Health, even Entertainment…

The Big Bang Fair of Science and Engineering is one example of the huge effort that is being made to educate young people, parents and teachers about engineering.   

The latest one, held at Birmingham NEC attracted over 70,000 people and has led to numerous videos being uploaded onto YouTube. And that is where we see problems.  One video shows a teacher saying that the Fair is the best place to find out about Science, a view supported by the comments of several schoolchildren.

In another video showing Nick Gibb MP (Minister of State for School Reform) opening the Fair, he says “What (the Fair) shows is that science isn’t just about white lab coats in a laboratory, or engineering isn’t just about lying under an oily car or vehicle – it’s about exciting modern companies doing exciting modern things”. Stuck for examples of these modern things, Nick? (I suppose a Law degree background is of little help!)

Greg Clark MP (Minister for Universities and Science) was also at the Fair and has his own video.  He waxes lyrical about Science and Scientists (13 mentions), mentions Engineers and Engineering (4 times), Technology and Technologists (4 times) and Mathematics (Twice).  At the end of the video he seems to attribute Robots, Space Exploration and Food to the work of scientists and mathematicians!  (I think you’ll find engineers have a major involvement in all three, Greg, but then an Economics degree wouldn’t help tell you that!).

And there is the problem.  The lack of understanding of engineering, and in particular its relationship with science perpetuates a significant problem for us in the UK (a problem we share with the US).  Because, as many have tried to clarify, engineering is not a part of science; engineering is a creative activity which aims to solve problems to produce those ‘modern things’ – wind farms, tidal generators, solar farms, power stations, modern agriculture, manufacturing facilities for food and drink and all the goods we use in everyday life, clean potable water, cars, lorries, ships, planes, trains, houses, skyscrapers, airports, tunnels, mobile phones, radios, tv, …. The list seems endless, because it covers everything surrounding us on which we rely. 

-Walter Pity