A report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering has linked the perception that practical skills are less valued than theoretical skills in the UK’s education system with a looming skills shortage.

The report, prepared by researchers at the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real World Learning, said young children are natural engineers, but that the primary school system fails to foster this mindset, and that even secondary school teaching of engineering is highly variable in quality.

Researchers interviewed a wide variety of engineering educators and practising engineers as part of the Thinking like an engineer – implications for the education system study, in order to identify six “engineering habits of mind” that generate very specific ways of addressing and approaching problems.

These included:

  • Systems thinking
  • Adapting
  • Problem finding
  • Creative problem solving
  • Visualising
  • Improving

The report makes a strong case that if the UK wants to produce more engineers, the education system needs to be redesigned so that these habits of mind become better embedded.

“Young children exhibit engineering habits of mind in the raw,” the report said. “When the cardboard structure they have built is strong enough to support the weight of other toys and becomes a medieval castle, there is the thrill of persistent and successful experimentation.”

However, the education system has come to expect young people to move away from practical learning as they grow up and to become more theoretical and abstract.

“Schools, like post-Enlightenment society, choose to persist in believing that people who design, make and fix things must be less intelligent than those who can write essays, make speeches or understand quadratic equations,” said the report.

It proposes that the engineering teaching and learning community consider redesigning curricula – primary, secondary, further and higher education and, potentially, family learning – starting from the premise that they are trying to cultivate learners who think like engineers.

A new National Curriculum for England will be introduced in from September of this year. The report said it offers an important moment to create more opportunities for engineering through the new programmes of study for computing, mathematics, and science, as well as design and technology, and recommends that organisations promoting engineering should seize this opportunity to support schools in introducing more engineering-based content to the new curriculum.

“Engineers think differently from the rest of the world,” said professor Bill Lucas, the report’s author and director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. “Society badly needs their problem-solving, systems-thinking and relentlessly-seeking-to-make-and-improve mindset. Yet the education system does little to teach in ways that will cultivate the engineers we will need. We leave it too late and, too often, teach it too dully. This has to change.”

Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng, Chair of the Academy’s Standing Committee for Education and Training, touted the report’s findings as significant.

“This insightful work suggests that even with an improved public engagement with engineering, our current education system in the UK does not sufficiently develop the habits of mind of young people to encourage them to pursue further study towards engineering careers,” she said.

  • As a builder , when building with ICF we rely on Engineers to engineer the structures but so many of them have had their brain removed and inserted a photocopier. They have forgotten how to engineer , If they did not do it last week they can not do it this week . We are desperate for GOOD Engineers .

  • Excuse me? "people who design, make and fix things must be less intelligent than those who can write essays, make speeches or understand quadratic equations,”

    It seems that the person who wrote that has no idea what an engineer actually does.

    As an engineer I have never been asked to "make and fix things" in my job, though that has been a useful skill around my house. In my jobs I have mostly analysed, wrote reports, sometimes used quadratic equations and sometimes made speeches though more often chaired or attended meetings.

    When even people who write reports about engineers have no idea what engineers actually do, it is time for engineers to step in front of class rooms and enlighten the students and their teachers.

  • Less intelligent than whom?

  • Not sure how the perception in the report relates to engineers being perceived as less intelligent. What does the balance between theoretical skills and practical skills have to do with intelligence? My view is that engineering as a profession is becoming increasingly less understood and certainly does not help address a skills shortage. Maybe the perception issue here is more around this lack of understanding.

  • The six “engineering habits of mind” identified in the report are interesting,

    Systems thinking
    Problem finding
    Creative problem solving

  • Surely an Engineer is trained and has passed numerous exams in various aspects of engineering. Personnel who do the physical work are Craftsmen in my opinion. Many are highly skilled e.g. welders, fitters and boilermakers on whom the engineer relies on on do skilled work. MechE in UK have just sent me a badge for 50 years as an engineer. In construction, where I worked for 45 years it is relatively rare to find qualified engineers but the construction doesn't seem to suffer too much.Please define 'intelligence.

  • Part of the problem with the term "Engineer" is that it is being applied to everyone, be they a trady or a PhD.

    The recovery of the term "Engineer" will be difficult since Engineers Australia got conned by "The Engineering Team" and let go of the term "Engineer" as applying only to University trained Engineers.

    I am finding that University trained engineers, as teachers, in TAFE, are referring to their students as "future Engineers". They are not and it is a bit of a fraud on them and society to refer to them as "future Engineers" or when they have completed their 2 year courses as "Engineers"

    Engineers Australia – you are a bit sad.

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