As debate surrounding the nation’s ability to develop sufficient numbers of engineers going forward continues, the leader of a non-for-profit foundation dedicated to inspiring interest in science and engineering among primary and secondary school students says Australia must do more to promote awareness amongst young children about what can be achieved through these fields and to build confidence within children about their ability to innovate and create.
Re-Engineering Australia Foundation founder and chairman Dr Michael Myers OAM said a gradual move toward a ‘score’ system in education had created an environment with too much emphasis on rote learning and insufficient focus upon fostering creative ability, accepting risks and learning from mistakes or developing life skills such as teamwork and collaboration.
“I think we have no trouble with kids liking maths and science,” Myers said. “(But) over a period of time we have moved into a score system to get into university.”
“What we have taken out of the education cycle is the innovation part – giving kids the experience so they can know they can innovate and create.
“I think the more kids we can get to come out of school knowing that they can create and make something – be it software or a new drug or a space shuttle – the better.”
Myers’ comments come amid concerns about the number of students Australia is graduating in the Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (STEM) disciplines and debate about how to develop our next generation of engineers.
In March last year, for example, an Australian Industry Group report warned that even though 75 per cent of the nation's fastest growing occupations require skills and knowledge of STEM-related disciplines, the number of secondary school students studying subjects such as advanced mathematics was in long-term decline.
In June, meanwhile, renowned construction industry advisor David Chandler OAM called for steps to be taken to address what he considers to be a dearth in the number of quality engineering graduates coming through.
Amid such concerns, a number of efforts to raise student awareness of the field are currently taking place.
The core program of Myers’ REA, for example, sees around 40,000 kids each year work in teams as part of an international competition to design and build Formula One cars.
In 2012, meanwhile, Marita Chang was named the Young Australian of the Year for her efforts in founding the Robogals program which runs in-school workshops through which teams of students - all girls - build robots.
Myers, who was recently included in Engineers Australia magazine’s 2014 list of the Top 100 Most Influential Engineers in the country, said the point of REA’s program goes beyond cars and extends not only to generating interest in concepts such as fluid dynamics, balance, weight, buoyancy and friction but moreover provides students with a real life experience associated with the design, build, test, and appraisal cycle and gives them a practical learning experience in a context which is relevant to them.
Asked what would define the influential engineers of the future, he said key attributes common to current leaders in the field revolve around high levels of vision, creativity and self-belief – characteristics he says Australia must foster amongst the younger generation.
He cited the past example of Dr. John Bradfield who, even when few cars were in action on the north shore, designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is still going strong after 80 years.
“If we can create more kids that have a vision and a belief which says ‘you know what, we can do that’ - that’s what we need,” Myers said.
Myers added that seeing children grow in confidence is a rewarding experience.
“I feel that I stand in the shadow of some amazing children,” he said. “It is absolutely inspirational to sit and listen to them and watch their brains tick over. And every day when you are hearing stories of kids who are doing things they never thought themselves possible, it’s self-inspiring. I’m driven by their success.”
“I think the potential for the country is wonderful and the environment our kids grow up in is wonderful. But we are just stuffing up this education process by this whole rote learning system.
“That’s the thing that’s destroying the country. It’s really holding our kids back.”