Word on the street is that engineering is the future

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Coronation Street star tops poll, but an innovative school-university collaboration hopes to enlighten young people

Who is the most famous engineer? In the country that gave modern engineering to the world, the choice is vast and varied. You could have James Watt, who sowed the seeds of the industrial revolution; William Rankine, father of academic engineering and thermodynamics; John Logie Baird who developed television; Robert Watson-Watt who invented radar.

Then there's John McAdam (modern roads), William Murdoch (gas lighting) John Dunlop (tyres), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) and a host of others too numerous to mention.

But the person who topped the poll in a recent survey was none of these eminent engineers, but someone who is neither Scots nor an engineer - nor even a real person. Step forward, Kevin Webster from Coronation Street.

A more damning indictment of our curriculum could hardly be imagined. If youngsters can't differentiate between a car mechanic and people who built the modern world - and transformed Scotland from a poor rural country into a prosperous industrial nation - we're in trouble, says Gordon Hayward, professor of electronic and electrical engineering at Strathclyde University.

In an attempt to bring engineering enlightenment to schoolchildren, Professor Hayward has been running a school-university collaborative project called Engineering the Future, "a nationally-funded programme designed to promote awareness of engineering as a high-value professional career".

Real engineers at Strathclyde and Glasgow universities have been partnering teachers and pupils in secondaries to work on engineering projects and deliver a lasting legacy of resources. "You can't overstate the value of engineering to the economy," he says. "Engineers create something useful, whether it's a device or the safety of an oil platform. If you have that mindset, you're halfway to starting your own business - and new, competitive businesses are key to future prosperity.

"We need the right people. Engineers can do accounting. Accountants can't do engineering."

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the three-year project brought together engineers at Strathclyde, educationists at Glasgow, and teachers and pupils in schools.

"Louise Hayward (senior lecturer in educational studies at Glasgow University) and her education colleagues went to the authorities and identified a dozen schools to take part," says Professor Hayward. "We provided the engineers to go into the schools and work with physics and technology teachers and pupils."

School and university partners devised projects that would complement the curriculum for the teachers, stimulate the interest and creativity of the pupils, and use equipment, methods and expertise from the universities.

Bats are monitored, bridges built, electronic components constructed, wind turbines tested, radiation detectors assembled, crumple zones and security systems designed, made and tried out. Pupils learn to use thermistors, light-emitting diodes, solar cells, ultra-sound transmitters and advanced transistors.

Most of all, they learn to think, create and appreciate what being an engineer is about. "I thought engineering would be dull and just building and looking at objects," says Mhairi Forrest of Trinity Academy, Edinburgh. "But it's about science and maths too, and is much more interesting than I thought. It's fun.

Principal teacher of physics at Woodfarm High, East Renfrew shire, Gurmeet Ghatory, says: "It's a nice joint effort. The children enjoy that they're not restricted to one subject. They use knowledge from other areas to solve a problem."

This is the aspect that makes Engineering the Future ideal for the new curriculum, says Louise Hayward. "It offers the creative, problem-solving approaches that are fundamental to ACfE - and it gives young people a better understanding of engineering, so they can make better choices."

That's why the profile of engineering in schools should be raised, says Val Corrie, head at Balfron High. "When young people are making choices for university, many aren't aware of what engineering is or what they'd do in it. It's a highly-skilled profession. It's well paid. There's a demand for engineers. Yet young people aren't choosing it. If we can build engineering in from first to sixth year, they'll have the information to make that choice."

This is what Engineering the Future has been doing in a dozen schools for the past three years. The results, in the form of detailed project and lesson plans, will soon be available through Glow, says Elsa Ekevall, engineering education development officer at Glasgow University. "At first, teachers said there's no room in the curriculum for engineering. But if you look at the outcomes and experiences in science and technology, it's already in there. It's teachers who have produced the materials, so other schools are keen to try them."

Engineering the Future is funded until March 2010 and what happens next is uncertain, says Professor Hayward. "Right now, university researchers have no real incentive to do that. I had to push this project in my department. Without a policy steer from the Government to make universities want to work with schools, it just won't happen."


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