Think back to your time at primary school, what are your standout memories? For many it was the days when normal routine went out of the window and we left the classroom for local museums, when real life scientists wowed us with colourful experiments or when the travelling theatre took over assembly. School trips and other enrichment experiences are a hugely formative part of school life, making memories, shaping ambitions and allowing us to dream big.
The sad reality is that the probability of such external experiences going ahead in the autumn term is low. Although the latest government guidance suggests that schools can now undertake Covid-secure day trips, many teachers and parents may still have concerns about children undertaking trips. But we must make sure that children don’t miss out.
At EngineeringUK our mission is to inspire and grow the next generation of engineers and our work spans across STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Some of our most important work is supporting teachers to deliver extraordinary STEM experiences inside and outside of the classroom and our focus on this hasn’t lessened since lockdown.
During the coronavirus crisis a spotlight has shone on the great work of engineers. For example, The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Special Awards for Pandemic Service highlighted exceptional examples of engineering across essential services and infrastructure - from the design and delivery of thousands of ventilators to the building of NHS Nightingale field hospitals.
Hopefully, a greater visibility of the creativity and problem-solving of engineers will provide an opportunity to broaden society’s understanding of engineering and provide inspiration for a new generation of engineers. With so much discussion and debate surrounding the STEM skills gap, now is the time to capitalise on this interest.
Educators have an opportunity to highlight engineering as the relevant, pervasive and exciting sector it is. It will be hugely important in responding to national and global challenges, from the pandemic to climate change, and, because of this, it will continue to receive government support and offer valuable careers. It is a great time to build the children’s aspirations and help them look positively towards the future and their possible roles in it.
I am keen to stress the huge role primary schools have to play in sowing the seeds of engineering inspiration.
Earlier this year we published research into students’ perceptions of engineering and its attractiveness as a career. The good news was that half of seven to 11 year olds reported a positive view of engineering, but we must work harder to inform and inspire the other half. Positive views of engineering were notably lower than those of science, technology and maths. Students aged seven-19 were less likely to understand what those working in the engineering industry do and were less likely to believe it to be a desirable career.
Crucially, research shows that children’s experience of engineering during the primary years plays a pivotal role in shaping positive perceptions. A 2008 study into the attitudes of Year 5 children showed that their perceptions had already developed into narrow understandings of what STEM subjects mean. Science is seen as investigative, engineering as repairing and technology as creative. Our research suggests there have been improvements but that misconceptions still exist.
Gender differences in perceptions of engineering start young - boys have more positive views of engineering than girls even in primary school. As they grow, these perceptions solidify into girls being less likely than boys to know about engineering, to view it positively or to consider a career in the industry. Girls are also less likely to believe they could become an engineer if they wanted to, even though they perform as well as boys in the subjects that typically lead into engineering pathways.
We must work against societal norms and ensure that children from all backgrounds can see themselves as future engineers.
What is encouraging is that research shows that children who take part in engineering experiences have vastly more positive outlooks. Experiences have the power to change perceptions, for boys and girls. But what does this mean at a time when school trips and external activities might be curtailed? We must do what engineers do best - be creative and innovate!
The engineering community’s desire to ensure children still have access to high quality experiences means that more and more organisations and institutions are moving experiences online. From the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 ‘Great Exhibition at Home’ (https://bit.ly/3hwhwaQ) to ‘Bring it on’! there continues to be opportunities for primary schools to engage in STEM and engineering experiences digitally. We are working alongside many other organisations and employers to increase the number of digital experiences available. Importantly these experiences will join other Covid-secure ‘real life’ experiences on our brand-new Neon platform, launching this month to support teachers seeking impactful STEM and engineering activities.
A free online platform, Neon, helps teachers quickly find quality-assured STEM and engineering outreach activities in their area and inspiring careers resources in one place. It has been developed with support from a huge range of leading organisations.
Crucially, it is teacher-tested to ensure that it meets their needs. In response to Covid-19, Neon lists the latest online experiences to allow for remote access alongside local experiences designed with current safety concerns in mind. Neon also provides inspiration and opportunities for teachers to plan-longer term experiences when the current need for digital-first experiences lessens.
It is worth saying that when it comes to online versus face-to-face experiences, online activities shouldn’t be viewed as ‘second best’ to ‘real life’ trips. Online alternatives can provide schools with different opportunities and greater accessibility, breaking down geographical boundaries, providing access to experiences and engineers from around the world. Reduced cost and less admin make such experiences attractive and they can engage large numbers of students, including those who, for a range of reasons, may not engage as well in face-to-face events.
For example, when those working in STEM visit a school it might be students already engaged by STEM or those with confidence who will speak up. Moving to an online environment can encourage those who are less forthcoming to engage. For example, the ‘I’m an Engineer, Get Me Out of Here’ (https://bit.ly/2RsPjaq) project that connects engineers with classes via online Q&As, reports that commonly 90 per cent of students actively engage in the activity, asking multiple questions via the portal. Being online democratises the experience.
We know that the next year will continue to present challenges for school leaders and teachers who will rightly be focused on ensuring children are safely closing any vital gaps in knowledge that have resulted from lockdown. There will be many competing priorities, including the need to bring students together through exciting shared experiences, and motivate them through building their aspirations for the future.
We should be more determined than ever to ensure that students have powerful experiences that build positive perceptions for all. No matter the logistical challenges our current world presents us with, my plea to school leaders is to join us in supporting teachers to continue to deliver transformative experiences in creative ways. 2020 will be a year to remember. I hope that the work the STEM and engineering community is doing to support schools helps them give students an array of inspirational memories.
How to ensure amazing experiences
- In considering digital experiences, seek out social and interactive options. Digital doesn’t just mean watching videos and passively listening. Encourage online activities that support group working and discussion.
- Connect engineering to real-world role models that your students can relate to. Look for activities that promote engagement with real engineers – with online experiences there are opportunities to access engineers from around the world, and with Neon we are making it even easier to connect to local engineers.
- Share ideas, encourage discussion and set time aside for teachers to think creatively about how to bring STEM activities into the classroom.
- Bookmark Neon (www.neonfutures.org.uk) as the online hub where teachers can easily find a fantastic range of inspirational STEM and engineering experiences and content.
Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive Officer, EngineeringUK