Engineering needs a political champion to help it take off

10th August 2012 at 01:00
Our track record in this field is outstanding, but the subject has lost prominence

There are a variety of Scottish stereotypes that regularly come into view through television, film and print. They entertain us, allow us to laugh at ourselves, make us feel proud or bring down a red mist of anger.

One, like the drunken Scot who's a tad worse for wear after too many whiskies, portrays a negative image. It is often seen in soaps, giving work to Scottish actors waiting for a decent break in London.

Another, the Scottish engineer who has built roads, bridges, railways and mines around the world, is a positive image so well known that it provided the basis for Scotty, Star Trek's chief engineer. That role went to James Doohan, who could at least pull off the accent.

When I travel either on holiday or with work there is rarely a place that I visit that does not have some connection with a Scottish engineer - and the benefits that our forebears' endeavours have bestowed have not just been great engineering feats. Spain's first football team, Huelva Recreation Club, was founded by two Scots at the Rio Tinto mines in 1889.

But engineering is more than about constructing things, it is essentially problem solving and would complement the other subjects as applied science. It is therefore strange, if not a scandal, that there is so little appreciation of engineering in Scottish schools other than through the occasional mention during history lessons of people such as Thomas Telford.

I was therefore heartened to read of a challenge to Scottish education to capitalise on our historical gift for engineering and take it a step further by teaching it in schools.

The idea comes from Ivor Tiefenbrun, the founder of Linn Products, himself a successful engineer of audio systems that have become the benchmarks for others to match.

The idea is simple enough - to start encouraging engineering as a central part of education in schools, making it as readily available as art, music, languages or geography. All it needs is a political champion.

The intention is not just to ensure that there is a stream of engineers available or giving Scottish pupils a strong card when it comes to finding work - it is also about improving the esteem of engineering.

The status of engineering in the UK and even Scotland is generally lower than in Germany, where it contributes greatly to that country's ability to produce well designed products or build infrastructure that contributes towards a higher level of prosperity.

There are SQA Intermediate qualifications available - but that's not the issue. It's making engineering a popular part of the curriculum that's important. The way to do this is by encouraging some schools to specialise in engineering studies. Is there a politician willing to help get this issue on the agenda and give it some clout?

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