Engineering a change in education

23 June 2014

With a gender chasm in engineering and a skills shortage on the horizon, it’s time to take a new approach to engineering education that acknowledges differences between girls and boys, says Dawn Bonfield.

Engineering studentThere is a huge amount of activity at industry, government and education level at the moment to encourage girls to consider engineering as a career. Less than 10 per cent of the UK’s engineers are women, and a recent report suggested that only 19 per cent of girls would consider a career in engineering versus 51 per cent of boys. With a very real skills gap looming, getting more girls into the sector is seen as a priority, but ways to achieve this result are much debated.

Hearts and minds

There are a number of excellent tried and tested enrichment activities to engage students with engineering for schools that have the time, energy, inclination and resources to invest, but the majority of these focus on demonstrating the practical application of engineering, with an emphasis on the ‘hands-on’ nature of the profession.

One area that is explored less often, and one which may well appeal to girls in greater numbers, is the intellectual or ethical side of engineering, where the big issues of the 21st century are explored and debated. For example, 'What are the pros and cons of using biofuel as a future energy source?' or 'How can technology be used to accelerate the progress of the developing world?' This combination of debate and contextual setting is very appealing to girls specifically, and gives a much greater meaning to the role of engineers and their importance to the country's success.

Discussing ‘big’ issues is important in helping raise awareness of the type of roles that engineering graduates will be addressing in their working lives. But equally important are issues closer to home, providing context from daily life for what can be seen as otherwise abstract, theoretical problems.

The small addition of some context to a question can be a much greater incentive for girls to solve the problem than without it, and with a bit of thought questions can be turned from the ‘boring’ solution of an ‘irrelevant’ problem to something much more engaging.

One example we use to illustrate this is the one of the circuit and the light bulb. Ask a group of students to wire up a circuit so that the push of a button switches a light bulb on, and usually this is the only incentive that the boys will need to get on with the job. But for girls, by adding the sentence that we need the light bulb to come on so that a deaf person knows there is somebody at the front door is the extra bit of contextual information that really brings some relevance to the task, and makes all the difference to their incentive to solve the problem. This extra information is so easy to provide, but so often gets left out.

An Institute of Physics report, Girls in the Physics Classroom, looked into this idea, noting that ‘the context approach was recognised and valued by the girls, who reported that it made the physics more interesting and helped their understanding,’ but ‘boys in a more traditional single-sex school were reluctant to engage with the approach and (along with their teacher) wanted to strip away the context, which they saw as extraneous material that would not help them pass their exams.’ It’s a question of balance.

Going one step further, engineering could feature in other subjects such as English and History, where debate around engineering issues and ethics, both from the present and the past would be a very interesting addition to the curriculum, and draw more people in to appreciating the importance of engineering. This would be similar to the approach taken in engineering-focused University Technical Colleges, where subjects elsewhere in the curriculum all refer back to an engineering core.

Today is the first National Women in Engineering Day. It marks the 95th anniversary of the Women’s Engineering Society, established in 1919 by women working in technical roles during the First World War. Almost a century on, many girls would turn their noses up at the thought of doing the vital jobs those women did during the Great War, and that is a sad reflection on engineering education today. It is high time that we found a way to ignite enthusiasm and engagement in engineering among all students, and started addressing this unnecessary and unhelpful gender imbalance.

Dawn Bonfield is the Executive Vice President of the Women’s Engineering Society

To find out more about National Women in Engineering Day go to www.nwed.org.uk or follow the TWitter hashtag #NWED

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