Hands-on projects that boost take-up of Stem

9th March 2018 at 00:00
A scheme that links Year 12 students with local companies to work on real engineering projects is proving a catalyst for further study in Stem subjects, finds Kirstie Brewer

Growing up, I was always good at science, but I didn’t want to be a scientist. I wanted to do something a bit more ‘real world’ in business and economics,” explains Nicola Grahamslaw, an engineer who is about to join the team of the historic SS Great Britain.

“None of my family or acquaintances were in engineering – or any other Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) job – so it was never something I’d considered.”

That changed after she joined the Engineering Education Scheme (EES) – a six-month programme that links teams of six Year 12s with local companies to work on real engineering projects.

‘It inspired me’

“The scheme single-handedly inspired my decision to study engineering,” says Grahamslaw, who worked with a local water company and was tasked with detecting sludge levels in a water treatment tank, an unglamorous yet fortifying experience.

So what is the scheme and how can you help students get involved? Charity eTrust has been running EES for more than 30 years and has a strong track record in helping to inspire a new generation of engineers like Grahamslaw.

In a survey of around 500 alumni in 2014, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) reported that their first full-time job was in engineering and technology.

EES is geared towards inspiring students who are already studying A levels or BTECs in subjects such as maths, physics, computer science, and design and technology, and it includes a two-day residential workshop at a local university.

Company mentors include Network Rail, Rolls-Royce and Tavistock.

Up to 1,400 students take part every year and the latest EES figures show that 89 per cent of those who go on to university decide to study a Stem subject. Furthermore, just over 20 per cent of participants go into apprenticeships.

“The scheme has challenged some of the perceptions of apprenticeships, particularly in schools that consider themselves to be very academic and would normally think of university as the only credible next step for their students,” says Geoff Jellis, schools programme director for eTrust. Alice Haines, a maths and physics teacher at Kent College, has been supervising students on the scheme for seven years.

Her school’s 2017 team worked with mentors from aerospace company BAE Systems to design a low-cost robotic arm that could be used by disabled people in developing countries.

“The world of engineering can seem intangible to students but [through EES] not only do they get an insight into the real world of engineering and how to solve a problem using the engineering process, they also develop their team-working, leadership, presentation and networking skills,” she says.

“At the beginning of the six-month project, students have no real concept of how their project is going to go – they have just come out of GCSEs and progress hugely to be able to produce a professional report by the time the scheme finishes.”

There is a celebration and assessment day, when all the scheme’s participants present their respective projects to a panel of industry professionals from across engineering. “Students noticeably grow in confidence to speak with people outside of a school session. It’s invaluable preparation for university, apprenticeships and job interviews,” Haines adds.

The low-cost robotic arm team has won a place in the Big Bang Competition finals, which take place in March.

As a result, the students were invited to present their project at the Houses of Parliament last November, to more than 40 MPs and industry leaders; a hugely formative experience for the group of 16- and 17-year-olds. There’s no doubt this is a big commitment for students at an already busy time in their lives, but advocates claim the rewards are worth it.

Shortage of women

How many of the participants are female, though? There is a chronic national shortage of women in engineering – and across the wider world of Stem. Last year, just 11 per cent of the UK engineering workforce was female, the lowest proportion in Europe, according to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). EES is on a drive to recruit more female students and in 2017, they accounted for 42 per cent of participants, up from 32 per cent three years ago.

“We are now more conscious to use genderinclusive language, and describe our programmes in a way that appeals to everyone, not just male students,” explains Jellis. “Engineering isn’t all fast cars and big bridges – it is about problem-solving and finding solutions that benefit society.

“We want students to make the link between engineering and solving environmental challenges, for example.”

According to the WES, around 20 per cent of students studying A-level physics are female – a figure that has remained static for 25 years.

Dynamic real-life examples

Although the EES recruits will have already made their A-level choices, Jellis says the teachers who take part will often encourage their younger students to consider taking subjects such as physics and, thanks to the scheme, are able to give them dynamic real-life examples of where studying the subject could take them.

Andrew Davidson, a science teacher at Swanshurst School in Birmingham, has had success in encouraging girls – in particular those from a Muslim background – to consider engineering.

“The projects are very challenging, and every week they are meeting an engineering mentor and growing in confidence – there is a huge difference when they come back to class,” says Davidson, who adds that a number of students have gone on to secure apprenticeships and university placements in the field.

This year’s team is working with Rolls-Royce on measuring the fan speeds of a jet turbine. In the past, teams have worked with Network Rail in designing safer level crossings.

But for the teachers involved in the scheme, is it a lot of work? “The students take control of the project themselves and are well supported with the technical aspects by their industry mentors, in person and via email,” explains Davidson.

“As the teacher, you’re the facilitator and logistics person – you’ll need to be there for an after-school meeting once a week and, ultimately, make sure that the project deadlines are met.”

It’s a good idea to have two teachers involved in the scheme, one lead and an assistant to help out as and when, says Haines, who worked in tandem with a teacher as he approached retirement and then went on to take the lead.

There is a Christmas workshop that provides a good opportunity to network with other teachers from other schools taking part in the scheme, and share ideas and best practice, she adds.

This is clearly a significant commitment for already-busy teachers. Not every school will be able to facilitate it.

But Grahamslaw still remembers being captivated by a talk at such a workshop during her own time on the scheme as a 17-year-old and she hopes plenty of others will have the opportunity to experience their own similar moment.

“It was about the investigation for the Concorde accident in 2000, and I was absolutely fascinated by how science had been used for the detective work and all the safety improvements which came about as a result,” she says. “It was definitely a huge turning point for me in terms of my knowledge of what engineering actually was.”

Kirstie Brewer is a freelance writer

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