Engineering is all around us. It’s in the devices we use, the cars we drive, and the bridges we drive over. Examples of engineering feats can be seen in many aspects of everyday life. Even though the signs of engineering are everywhere, students are often not inspired to enter this rewarding field. Many students are unaware of career possibilities or, even worse, are taught engineering in a dry, uninspiring way.
With National Engineers Week happening next month, it’s a great time to look at some of the problems and possible solutions in engineering education. A study sheds important insight into the engineering conundrum. A group at The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in the United Kingdom produced an enlightening research report (Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers) on parent and student views of engineering. Understanding how engineering is viewed can offer direction about how to change this view from distaste to a lifelong love of engineering.
“Our aim with the ‘Inspiring the next generation of engineers’ research was to gain a deeper understanding of the perceptions parents and young people, particularly girls, have of engineering today – and to find out how we can improve these perceptions in the future. What are the principal images of engineering that parents and children hold – and what images or messages should we use in the future to appeal to these audiences?”
— Nigel Fine (Chief Executive, The Institute of Engineering and Technology, @nigelfine)
The UK, it turns out, has many of the same issues plaguing STEM fields as we do in the U.S.—an overall lack of students recruited to these fields and a wide gender gap. In both countries, the demand for engineers is greater than the number of engineers available to fill these jobs. Not only are these jobs plentiful, they are intellectually and creatively stimulating, and financially rewarding.
The first step to creating more engineers is inspiring more students to become engineers. That’s where this research comes in.
Research Findings: The Importance of Parental Support
Although teachers are responsible for learning inside the classroom, parents represent an important link in their child’s education. This can mean allowing participation in after-school educational activities, helping with homework, and attending parent-teacher conferences. It also means giving children the opportunity to explore different subjects after school. Unfortunately, a pervasive fear of STEM fields among many parents can cause a rift between a student and a possible career in engineering.
The views expressed by parents often translate into the views expressed by students, as seen in the infectious transmission of math anxiety. The UK study shows parents are often at a loss when it comes to engaging their children in engineering. A whopping two-thirds of parents would not be able to give their child information on engineering if the child asked. Luckily, the results show parents want to learn about potential careers in engineering.
Beyond the general lack of engineers, another hurdle to overcome is the gender gap in engineering. Women currently hold around one quarter of all STEM jobs. The report shows the thinking that drives students away from engineering has a particularly strong effect on young girls.
Parents with daughters are more likely to shed a negative light on engineering, adding to the STEM-fear. Less than half of parents of girls would encourage their child to consider engineering, compared to two-thirds of parents of boys. A lack of interest in engineering shown by children, especially girls, is compounded by a lack of understanding shown by parents.
Both children and parents often view careers in engineering as fixing, mending, messy, dirty, maintenance, and “more for boys.” Parents and students are not aware of the diversity of engineering careers, which are more creative and innovative than traditional views. Even though girls are interested in the subject, they tend to see engineering as difficult, too difficult to explore as a possible career.
Clearing up the misconceptions about engineering is important. One misconception is that engineering is simply applied science. As Cary Sneider (Associate Research Professor at Portland State University in Portland, and IAT curriculum author), describes, science and engineering involve two very different core ideas. The confusion between the two can add to the difficulty of promoting a correct face of engineering.
“The distinction between science and engineering activities can be subtle, since they could involve the same materials and even similar challenges. A definitive way of untangling science from engineering is to ask the student what goal they are trying to accomplish. If they are trying to answer a question, they are doing science. If they are trying to solve a problem, they are doing engineering.” — Cary Sneider (Science vs. Engineering: An Expert Untangles a Curriculum Conundrum)
Although it may be easy to think engineering is forever plagued by misconceptions and lack of interest, there is immense hope in the results of this research. Both parents and students are interested in engineering. Interest forms the basis of learning! The key to changing the perception of engineering, especially for girls, is to capitalize on this interest.
How to inspire students in engineering
As IET says in a promotional video, “there’s an engineer in each of us.” How do teachers and parents encourage the engineer in each child to shine? How do we create more Rex Moribes, an engineering whiz and IMP math success story? Inspiring the next generation of engineers means making engineering fun and hands on.
One way is to start early. The impressions children have of certain fields are cultivated at a young age. That’s why it is important for parents to encourage engineering fields early-on with interactive play in the form of engineering books and toys. This is especially important for girls, who are often given dolls instead of building blocks. STEM play specifically geared toward girls, like the engineering toy GoldieBlox, help cultivate lifelong interest. Toys like GoldieBlox are specifically designed to teach children to solve problems like engineers. In a popular TED talk, GoldieBlox creator Debbie Sterling talks about how changing the toy landscape can inspire future female engineers:
Encouraging an interest in engineering at an early age can mean connecting problem-solving to something students already love. Recently, It’s About Time® took an extremely popular movie, Star Wars, and formed a competition designed to solve an engineering problem based on the movie aptly titled “STEM Wars.” This competition (winners announced today!) encourages students to flex their engineering muscle to help Star Wars-inspired STEM characters escape a swamp. Students at schools across the country participated and we received photos and videos showing young students engrossed in the engineering challenge and having fun! Take a look at students from Preston Elementary School engineering their SEM Wars solution in the video below.
— PrestonElem. Science (@keith_nelman) January 15, 2016
The UK study shows there are many aspects of engineering students like. Many students expressed interest in new technology, drawing and designing, making and building things, and finding out how things work. These interests form the basis of many project-based activities. Project-based learning can take many forms. Teachers can take advantage of resources like PBS’ “Engineering Design through Media,” which uses media to “bring engineering alive for students.” Students can also participate in robotics competitions that combine STEM with friendly competition to create a fun new sport (Battles of the Bots: Hands-on STEM is the Newest School Sport!)!
Another important part of teaching engineering is using effective curriculum. Curriculum that combines these interests with real-world applications, like Engineering the Future™, inspires students and gives them the skills and confidence to excel in engineering. At Clearway School, a special education high school in Massachusetts, this confidence meant explaining engineering solutions to Congressman Joe Kennedy, which the student did like pros! Project-based, real-world activities like those in Engineering the Future integrate the engineering design framework in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which highlights the importance of defining problems and designing solutions for problems. Peter Rosen, Clearway’s Educational Director, explains how exposing students to engineering is helping students to excel in STEM, graduate with high grades, and yearn for careers in technical fields:
For students to succeed in engineering, the view of engineering being boring must be challenged. Engineering involves designing creative solutions to problems. Emphasizing the creativity involved in engineering can help encourage a wider range of students, giving every child the opportunity to succeed in this field. This can also mean connecting students with engineering superheroes like the SPOKES college, engineering student group, who ride across America every summer teaching underserved students about STEM subjects — or spending a summer with Engineers Without Borders, applying engineering skills to make a real impact in communities around the world (Engineers Without Borders: Adding Social Causes to STEM Learning). With programs like these, students receive real-world, hands-on engineering experience where they not only get to solve problems, but they see how their solutions impact the world around them positively. Students need to experience the inspiration in engineering!
With the inclusion of engineering in the Next Generation Science Standards, parents and educators are recognizing the importance of engaging students in this field. As the UK research study indicates, students are interested in engineering. The key is to sift through the engineering myths and get students excited about engineering the real world around them with collaborative problem-solving!
Read the full UK report HERE.
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