Last week’s Big Bang science and engineering fair saw a bigger turnout of youngsters from across the country than ever before and the show’s organisers can justifiably be proud of beating their targets for numbers of visitors.
With more than 120 different engineering, science and technology organisations supporting The Big Bang, and leading employers such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce taking the time out to connect with the schoolchildren who will become the engineers and scientists of tomorrow, there was a lively atmosphere at what is becoming established as a crucial event on the STEM agenda.
The fair, held on Thursday to Saturday at London’s cavernous ExCel exhibition centre, is set to move to even bigger surroundings in 2012 at Birmingham NEC, effectively doubling its footprint. It’s been an impressive addition over the last three years to other outreach efforts that aim to inspire children when it comes to engineering.
The organisers must hope that their efforts, however, are not in vain because of a lack of government support for science and engineering. The level of rhetoric about STEM’s importance has arguably never been higher – it is significant that Engineering UK was able to deliver its report which outlined the need for hundreds of thousands of new engineers at No 11 Downing Street – but worries remain on the part of some that it could turn out to be hot air.
At The Big Bang, Mike Brown of Siemens was manning a stand, and making one too. He has helped to introduce the latest computer-aided design and engineering software to schools as part of a role in the past with PTC (of Pro Engineer fame) and is working on a similar education programme with the German giant that he says is among the best in the industry.
But he fears that the T and the E in STEM are “silent” with little focus on technology and engineering, and with design and technology classes in schools sometimes viewed as being a means of keeping poorly-behaved children out of trouble – instead of as an important element of later study of disciplines such as engineering. “If we as a country want to grow we need to invest in these kinds of kids [with technical/practical bias] now,” Brown says.
Brown’s concerns were backed up by Richard Green, of The Design and Technology Association, which was also exhibiting. Green’s organisation is fighting hard to ensure that the teaching of design and technology, as opposed to maths or physics, is not marginalised due to it being dropped from the National Curriculum.
A call for evidence on a review of the curriculum is currently taking place on the part of the government – it closes in a month’s time – and concerned engineers are urged to lobby ministers about the importance of these traditional subjects which give children practical skills. Otherwise, so the argument runs, they could be sidelined to the detriment of industry.
It’s possible to observe a disconnect at work here between The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – whose leader Vince Cable visited The Big Bang – and The Department for Education, which is arguably looking at developing a “1950s-style, grammar school” curriculum. Design and technology, argue those defending them, should be kept on the National Curriculum or as compulsory subjects from the ages of 5-14. Green says, in favour of this view: “At GCSE-level, design and technology is the most popular non-core subject.”
So as the Big Bang continues to expand at the NEC next year, educators, engineers and scientists will be hoping that there is solid backing from government at its core.
- Interested? Register your support for design and technology by answering questions 16a and 16b of the National Curriculum call for evidence