Reaching out to the next generation of engineers

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2015

Engineering accounts for almost a quarter of the turnover for all enterprises in the UK, but the country needs to double the amount of graduates and apprentices to maintain the sector. Simon Frost reports. 

Just one in six of the 11–16 year-olds surveyed in the Engineering UK Report 2014 said that they know what people working in engineering do. Set that against the same report’s estimate of 2.74m engineering job openings between now and 2020, and the importance of outreach becomes clear – a key conclusion of the report is that the UK needs to double its number of engineering graduates and apprentices by 2020. But how do we encourage the next crop of engineers and materials scientists, to guarantee a supply of new talent into industry for years to come?

Start them young

This might be the most important point in the long-term – at university level, the industry links are strong, but materials science is not widely featured in school curriculums and in the formative years from primary school to A Level, the number of students engaged and achieving in STEM subjects drops at every stage. Eileen Harkin-Jones notes in this issue that by secondary school level, much of the damage is already done – she believes there are real benefits of professionals giving talks to primary school children, particularly in dispelling the idea that engineering is a male profession.

Mark Rogers, Head of Design and Technology at King Edward VI School in Lichfield, Staffordshire, says, ‘I don’t believe that we cover materials science in the depth and breadth it deserves at all key stages of statutory education. There is some materials content in science and design and technology GCSE specifications, but very little serious structured cross-fertilisation takes place to bring the science and technologies together.’

As well as increased materials focus in curriculums, Rogers notes the importance of industry taking the time to show schoolchildren where their STEM education could lead them. ‘Quite often, the initial reaction from industry when we contact them is that we are going to ask for money,’ he says. ‘But it’s not money that we need from industry. When it comes to teaching materials science in relation to the real industrial world, what we really need is for people in industry to give us their time. 

The time spent developing relationships between schools, industry and/or higher education has tangible benefits for all involved. Our students actually get to see that there is some point to what we teach in schools.’

Hands on

Mark Miodownik, materials engineer and Professor of Materials and Society at University College London, has promoted materials science to a wide audience in recent years through national television broadcasting and popular science writing. ‘It annoyed me that science and engineering were not seen as part of British culture, as equals to literature, music and art,’ he says. ‘I’ll keep doing it until there aren’t separate departments in the BBC for arts and science.’

His outreach advice for both STEM teachers and industry figures is straightforward – ‘Ditch the posters and PowerPoint presentations,’ he says, ‘activities involving making and materials are the most effective way to engage the public.’

One university module, run by Dr Russell Goodall, Senior Lecturer in Metallurgy at the University of Sheffield, gathers doctoral students into teams to deliver a new outreach activity. In 2012, a set of students produced Materials Monopoly, a variation on the popular board game that replaces London’s streets with materials, with the property cards providing information on the materials’ properties. ‘Rather than spending money to improve them by adding houses and hotels, investment in research on the materials brings higher-value applications and income through rent,’ Goodall explains. Following the game’s popularity at the 2012 Cheltenham Science Festival, a run of 1,000 boards was produced, with more than 650 different schools across the UK taking it on as a learning resource.

National competition

In 2011, Rogers teamed up with a physics teacher, a design and technology technician, a professor of metallurgy and an undergraduate marketing officer to develop a competition that raised the profile of materials science to students aged 16 and above. ‘Students compiled a folio of a range of work related to materials science. The culmination of this programme of study was synchronised with the university applications process and resulted in an increase in applications for materials science degree courses’, he says.

The programme was shortlisted for the Rolls-Royce Science Prize in 2012 and has since been developed by IOM3 into the Armourers and Brasiers Tata Steel Sixth Form Materials Prize. Participating schools take students through a six-module materials course, during which the students document their experience in a portfolio. Up to five students are then entered into a national competition, where finalists submit their portfolio and give a presentation to compete for £1,000 for their school’s department and £1,500 for one chosen student.

Affiliating schools

Rogers and Goodall have the Schools Affiliate Scheme (SAS) in common. Goodall is Deputy Chair of the IOM3 Education Committee, which is involved in a wide range of different outreach events and provides input for the SAS. ‘It links with schools and gives them access to resources such as the discovery box – a range of examples of real materials that teachers can use in lessons,’ he says. Recently, Dr Diane Aston, IOM3 Education Coordinator, has extended SAS activities to provide sessions for primary school age groups.

King Edward VI School is a member of the SAS, and Rogers says that a talk from Aston on a teachers’ course was instrumental, inspiring the idea to use materials science activities to link the departments of design and technology and science. 

The results show that putting materials science in the context of design and technology is an effective way to engage students creatively – as Miodownik says, ‘If we claim science and engineering is creative, then we must teach the next generation to be creative and not just to pass exams.’