Founding a future on solid structures

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
An academic from Strathclyde University is the driving force behind a set of projects that fuse science with technology to attract more high- fliers into studying engineering. Elizabeth Buie reports

It's all about the appliance of science for pupils at Dollar Academy, who have been studying the energy crisis from three different perspectives. Their economics teacher looks at the global economic problem, their physics teacher at solar energy, and their technological studies teacher teaches them about wind power.

So, on a recent visit to Airtricity's windfarm at the Braes of Doune in Perthshire, they looked at features of wind-turbine design, the economic payback time for wind power, and how the turbines actually generate electricity.

In this cross-curricular project, the word "engineering" is not explicitly mentioned. But by developing a compressed course nicknamed Pets (physics, economics and technological studies), the aim is to give pupils a better awareness of engineering while at the same time allowing them to sit three Intermediate 2 courses in the time normally allocated to two.

The physics and technological studies departments have been able to streamline their course content, particularly in common areas such as electricity and energy. Economics was included in the trio of subjects on the advice of staff at Strathclyde University's engineering department, who emphasised the need for engineering students to have strong business skills.

The project is one of a dozen across Scottish secondaries which have been overseen by Gordon Hayward, who runs the Centre for Ultrasonic Engineering at Strathclyde University and chairs a spin-off company. He is also the driving force behind Engineering the Future which, if successful, could transform how engineering is viewed by pupils, teachers and wider society. His motivation is to increase the number of bright students choosing to study engineering at higher education level.

His department is one of the top five in its field in the UK, but, like other engineering departments, it has not been generating enough high- fliers to drive the UK economy, he believes.

For this reason, Professor Hayward has recruited teachers such as Dollar Academy's Deborah Keys, head of applied physics and engineering (a post created in recognition of the importance of engineering), to take part in a three-year project which he hopes will change the way engineering is viewed in schools and make a material difference to the numbers and the kind of students who opt for the subject in future.

The time is ripe, Professor Hayward believes. Not only are teachers engaged in shaping the new science outcomes and experiences in A Curriculum for Excellence (ACfE), but the most recent Scottish Survey of Achievement in science showed weaknesses in science knowledge. Responses from pupils who have taken part in the Engineering the Future project show they found it challenging and rewarding, not to mention relevant, key aspects in promoting scientific interest among young people.

The current review of higher physics and the creation of a new Scottish science baccalaureate also present a golden opportunity to focus thinking on the application of science through engineering - although the Scottish version of the baccalaureate still lacks the rigour of the French version, Professor Hayward believes.

Dr Keys is very supportive of his aim of raising the profile and general awareness of engineering. Unless her pupils have family or friends working in the field, they tend to think of it as being about fixing televisions or cars, she says.

Her pupils have found the project motivating, and she has enjoyed working more closely with other departments.

Louise Hayward, Professor Hayward's wife, is also involved in the project but comes at it from the perspective of a senior lecturer in Glasgow University's education faculty. She believes that the same methodologies used to make Assessment is for Learning so successful - involving classroom practitioners in the research phase and embedding it in their practice - can have the same effect.

With Pounds 300,000 backing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council over three years (the project is nearing the end of its second year), the focus is on collaboration with schools and the creation of concrete projects.

Professor Hayward is scathing about the roadshow approach to promoting interest in engineering or other aspects of science, saying that, at best, this is a "cosmetic wallpapering exercise".

There are, he argues, serious issues with the structure of engineering in schools where the only exposure to it is through technological studies, which tends to sit alongside subjects such as home economics. "While elements of engineering would naturally sit there, technological studies is not the right environment. We are trying to raise awareness of engineering as a career and increase the number of quality graduates in every engineering discipline. We need to get the subject into the school curriculum in a more meaningful way than is the case today," he says.

That means aligning it with science - and creating opportunities to show pupils how the scientific theory can be applied to real-life situations. It also means a realignment of attitudes. The Stem-ed group is influential in promoting science, technology, engineering and maths in education. But within schools, the focus is skewed towards the S and the M - science and maths - whereas in the real world, it is the technology and engineering that hold sway. The curriculum needs to reflect that better, he argues, and that will mean convincing some of the more traditional scientists.

The fear of the Engineering the Future team is that, unless the curricular reforms take on board their concerns, the science elements of ACfE will be set in stone for the next 20 years - too late for engineering in Scotland.

Initially, when teachers from the pilot schools were asked whether it would be possible to integrate engineering into the existing science framework, they identified S1-2 as the only likely area. But on closer examination, they have acknowledge that ACfE offers very real opportunities for more integrated approaches to working across the curriculum. They must also find ways of improving students' ability to make the link between concepts and real applications - a shortcoming in first year undergraduates.

George MacBride, a former education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland and another member of the team, argues that the draft science outcomes and experience for ACfE need to state more explicitly the engineering aspects. "If you were a teacher not involved in this project, you would not pick up the references that can be made to engineering. They are not explicit and the teacher has to make the links," he says.

Engineering is the binding agent for all the sciences, says Professor Hayward, citing chemical engineering, bio-engineering and electrical engineering to support his case.

Already, the project has won high-level political backing. Alex Neil, SNP MSP, whose background is in economics, says: "Engineering is about problem-solving. Even if you are trained in engineering, you don't always end up in engineering. You could be a project manager. What we need to do is ensure that engineering is not left out and is given its proper place with science."

But he is concerned that there are conservative forces - "people like Learning and Teaching Scotland" - who still need to be persuaded of the case for engineering.

"There is no doubt that the core of the future development of Scotland lies here. We should be making Scotland one of the science and technology capitals of Europe. That is where tomorrow's jobs and wealth creation will be."


Balfron High, Stirling Council

This bat-detector project was targeted at S1-2 pupils initially but has been extended to develop S3-4s to work on ultrasound and reflection. Members of the Engineering the Future team have visited associated primary schools.

The initial phase required S1-2 pupils to build an ultrasound monitoring device using a transducer to detect bat sounds, which are inaudible to humans. This involved practical electronic engineering skills. They used the device to investigate the nature of ultrasound, applying basic physics of propagation, and bat behaviour and distribution in their local area. This helped them to gain an understanding of how electrical engineering can be used to solve a problem.

Roy Pearson, principal teacher of science, has also observed a high-level research project at Strathclyde University, where engineers have designed and mounted electronic devices onto bats to analyse their sound-waves. In the wake of his involvement, he is enthusiastic about promoting engineering, which he regards as "vital for the health of the country". He sees an opportunity for focusing on engineering in the interdisciplinary project that will be a feature of the new Scottish science baccalaureate.

Holy Cross High, Hamilton, South Lanarkshire.

Science faculty head Brian Smith and physics teacher Linda Glancy teamed up with the electrical engineering department of Strathclyde University for their project, which focused on electricity and analogue physics.

They connected a Wheatstone Bridge measuring device to an amp to enlarge its signal and then displayed the signal on a digital readout. They put this experiment into an engineering context by building a model bridge. When a model car was placed on the bridge, it produced a signal which was relayed to the digital read-out display. Pupils used this knowledge to apply solutions to real-life situations, such as strains and stresses on bridges.

The teachers built the engineering element into the Outcome 3 part of Higher physics - the section of the course which asks pupils to write up an experiment.

The school purchased a hand-held oscilloscope (used to measure waves), a strain gauge connected to a Wheatstone bridge arrangement and a purpose- made amplifier.

Both teachers think the work helped prepare their S5-6 pupils for the Higher physics exam, where 60 per cent of questions involve problem- solving.

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