Quote of the month, possibly of the year, comes from Jim Wade, head of the new JCB Academy. “We want youngsters to never have to ask why they have to learn things in maths and science because they will be placed in the engineering context,” he said. Magic stuff.
Anyone who went along to the Big Bang Fair at the Manchester Central exhibition space earlier this month would have known what Wade was on about. Young people (of all ages) were able to involve themselves in doing and experiencing things, and out of those experiences might perhaps come the deeper questions about how these things actually work – the underpinning maths and science.
There’s always been a strange reticence about introducing engineering into schools, despite the fact that many youngsters are fascinated by gadgets and “working” things. That reticence is being overcome through curriculum development and better teaching but still for a very high proportion of children, the way to engineering is paved with incomprehensible maths and unexplained science. No wonder so many fail to stay the course. Or never really begin.
The enthusiasm that ran through the Big Bang experience carried on into real achievement in the National Science and Engineering Competitions that formed a centrepiece of the event. Articulate, committed young people, innovative technology, delivered with insight into market needs and wider global issues – you couldn’t but be heartened by what the best can achieve.
So why isn’t there more of this? And why is it that there is a perception – not these days borne out by the figures, it should be added – that young people turn away from engineering as a career option? It’s certainly not a myth that, in some sectors of engineering, the age profile is worryingly elderly and that there is a shortage of young people ready to step in.
There are cost reasons, of course: engineering isn’t cheap. And there are health and safety reasons too.
But there’s also a shortage of people and companies and organisations keen to bring engineering subjects into the curriculum: to help devise learning materials that will help Wade and other teachers bring alive the maths and the science through real examples, to give real-life experience from industry and business to subjects such as geography and social studies and history, to fire imaginations.
It’s all about context. And if we think engineering is important, which it is, then shouldn’t we be falling over ourselves in a headlong rush to provide some context to bring on the next generation?