Growing up in the leafy suburban borough of Kingston upon Thames, Holly Simmonds had not considered the opportunities that the world of engineering had to offer.
“At my secondary school, the focus was firmly on the academic side of maths and science,” she says. “So I never realised that my love of maths could combine with my love of buildings and be a career.”
That all changed when, aged 17, she attended a summer school run by the Sutton Trust, aimed at encouraging young women’s interest in professions related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem). By participating in the project, Simmonds gained a valuable insight into the different types of engineering and was inspired to explore career options further.
The 26-year-old has now completed her degree and secured employment as a civil engineer, but she admits that life could have been very different if she had made other plans in the summer of 2008.
“I genuinely don’t know if I’d be an engineer if it wasn’t for that summer school breaking down my perception,” says Simmonds. “I always thought engineering was to do with machines and cars.”
Recently, the government began a national campaign to increase awareness of what engineers do through projects similar to the one that Simmonds experienced.
Working in partnership with the UK Space Agency, the campaign aims to give thousands of young people inspirational experiences of engineering through a series of education and outreach projects designed to promote interest in Stem subjects.
But why is it falling to outside agencies and interventions to provide pupils with practical experiences of Stem in schools? Talk to Stem subject teachers and they are clear that more practical work could and should be done in maths, particularly, and science at GCSE level. But they also point out that facilitating hands-on lessons in school can be difficult.
For example, the national curriculum programmes of study state that mathematics is “critical to engineering” but Michael Anderson, a mathematics subject specialist for STEM Learning, suggests that a lack of readily available resources can limit the possibilities for engineering-focused practical work.
“Obviously there are structural things that are done quite a lot, making paper aeroplanes or building bridges, but if you spoke to most maths teachers, they would know that has been done to death,” he says.
As a result, Anderson feels that many teachers tend to focus their time on helping students to become proficient in the fluency aspects of the curriculum, rather than encouraging them to use their skills in an engineering context.
He has noticed the beginnings of a shift, though, as problem-solving has become a more prominent objective and changes to science and technology GCSEs have led to increased amounts of mathematical application in those subjects.
But not everyone agrees that recent developments in education policy have been beneficial.
Sue Pope, from the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, believes the introduction of the English Baccalaureate has led to less design and technology in schools, while a drive on accountability has distorted the curriculum.
“I don’t think we do ourselves any favours in our education system to really address the Stem needs of the country,” she says. “The closest mathematics gets to engineering is mechanics at A level.
“However, relatively few people incorporate practicals into mechanics teaching. In my experience, many people choose to show a YouTube video rather than manage the practicals themselves, which is obviously not the same.”
Richard Needham, chair of the Association for Science Education and a chartered science teacher, adds that growing demands of the curriculum are a significant barrier to the development of engineering-focused practical work in secondary schools. “I think there is a lot of pressure on the core subjects to get that material taught in the process of preparing for GCSE exams. So, in terms of including rich contexts in teaching, there is a conflict,” he says.
‘Habits of mind’
But Dr Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, does not agree that resources and preparation time should be significant barriers to incorporating engineering in classroom activities.
“While at its heart, engineering is about making, engineers tend to exhibit a set of characteristics, or ‘habits of mind’ that can be nurtured and cultivated through a wide range of activities,” he says. “The academy has a wide variety of teaching resources that need only relatively basic equipment – such as paper, scissors, straws, coffee stirrers – and these are all freely available on our website.”
But Needham believes another constraint is staff expertise, as few secondary school teachers come from an engineering background themselves and so lack confidence in their own subject knowledge.
It is a concern shared by Engineering UK, which has called for urgent action to address the significant shortage of specialist teachers in physics, design and technology, and computing.
However, there are professional development opportunities available. STEM Insight, a continuing professional development programme run by STEM Learning, offers an opportunity for education staff to experience life in modern industrial or academic settings so that they can take this knowledge back to the classroom.
The scheme was set up in response to research from the Association of Colleges, which found that 82 per cent of teachers feel they lack the necessary knowledge to offer careers information to their students.
And practicals do not always have to be delivered by a teacher. The organisation also has more than 30,000 Stem ambassadors – volunteers from industry who offer their time and expertise to support schools, free of charge, in delivering particular lessons or talks.
Anderson reflects on his recent experience working with volunteers from Network Rail, who guided pupils in building structures made out of elastic bands and wooden sticks.
“That had a great impact in terms of maths learning, problem-solving and group work but could also be related to some science learning as well,” he says.
Meanwhile, Engineering UK also offers a range of alternatives to help schools improve their provision of engineering work and careers advice.
Its Big Bang Fair, a programme of UK-wide regional events that aim to get students enthused about Stem subjects, was visited by more than 130,000 students in the 2015-16 academic year.
It also runs the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme, which provides a platform for employers to work with schools to inspire students to consider a career in engineering. In the past year, the programme provided 300,000 young people with opportunities to talk directly to professionals in the field and engage in hands-on activities that contextualise engineering skills.
But while acknowledging the benefit of these interventions, Pope does not believe they can replace in-school Stem subject practicals. “It’s great that the opportunity exists, but it’s certainly not going to meet the needs of all students who need hands-on experiences,” she says.
There is no substitute for in-class practicals, she believes.
Simmonds says that if we give students more opportunities to experience practical engineering, they will soon see the true nature of the sector.
“The satisfaction of seeing something you designed being built and making a difference is huge, and being a part of change that benefits society is also really rewarding,” she says.
And she wants more practicals in schools so more students can feel those benefits.
Jay Birch is a freelance writer