Engineering education should begin in primary school

 December 18 2017

A new report has again exposed the failure of the UK education system to promote engineering as a career.

Issued by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it found that engineering is rarely encountered in schools, even though it is responsible for 26% of UK GDP, and there is a growing demand for engineers in the workplace.

This is nothing new. Engineering UK’s State of Engineering report 2017 suggests that while students’ perceptions of engineering have grown more positive over the last five years – and teachers are more likely to recommend it as a career – young people don’t understand what engineering actually is.

To tackle the problem, the IMechE report recommends the Government engage a working group to explore innovative ways of integrating engineering into education, alongside schools adopting an engineering vision and strategy. The aim would be to raise the profile of engineering within the existing curricula.

This is helpful but it doesn’t go far enough. Furthermore, it only focuses on secondary education, which is far too late.

By the time they are 10, studies have shown that children often have embedded gender stereotype notions, and have very often decided whether they are ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) by the time they leave primary school.

For engineering to be truly embedded in education, we need to start with young children, toddlers and pre-schoolers, who are ideally placed to start responding to their environment without the hindrance of gender stereotypes or worrying about whether they are ‘brainy’ enough to be scientists. By engaging young learners with simple engineering concepts and activities, and encouraging them to explore their ideas, we can promote STEM in an holistic manner.

With many young people becoming disillusioned with science when they go to secondary school – when lessons becomes less hands-on – primary schools are the place to engage children with engineering, before this negative association begins.

However engineering cannot be a stand-alone offering and the primary curriculum offers a great range of potential links to engineering – the topic of Romans in history, and rivers in geography to name but two. By integrating engineering into a wider learning landscape, children who may not already be engaged by traditional STEM concepts may find their experience and appreciation for the subjects broadened and challenged.

There is much to be welcomed in the IMechE report – in particular the determination to improve engineering in education and to encourage engineering as a career. It must, however, apply to all levels of education and not be limited to 11+. By then, it can often be too little, too late.