July 16, 2014 11:58 pm

Lego scientists join drive to assemble fresh generation of young engineers

Could a small piece of brightly coloured moulded plastic be the key to solving the shortage of science, maths and engineering graduates?

Increasing attempts to get primary schoolchildren – particularly girls – interested in the sciences will receive the backing of toy giant Lego next month. After receiving more than 10,000 online votes, Lego is about to release its “Research Institute” set, featuring three female scientists in a lab, complete with miniature conical flasks, dinosaur bones and a microscope – and not a pink brick in sight.

A move that has been welcomed by industry, engineering companies are working harder than ever with primary and secondary schools in the UK to influence teens to choose science subjects. Firms have traditionally targeted children aged 12-13 who are about to make GCSE choices, but many are increasingly of the view that work promoting science subjects needs to start much younger if the message is to be effective.

Fears about the UK’s widening skills gap are intensifying. Earlier this month, a survey by the CBI employers’ organisation and Pearson, the education company that owns the Financial Times, found that 58 per cent of businesses were not confident they would have enough highly skilled staff available to meet their future needs – a jump from last year’s survey, when 46 per cent expressed the same concern.

Data collected from UK employers by the Department for Work and Pensions suggest there will be 13.5m new vacancies in the next 10 years – mainly to replace those leaving the workforce – but only 7m young people will leave UK schools and colleges.

“Companies are becoming so concerned with the pipeline of talent going into manufacturing and engineering that they’re increasingly targeting primary schools,” says Verity O’Keefe, skills policy adviser with EEF, the manufacturer’s organisation.

Part of Lego’s science set©Lego

Part of Lego’s science set

The EEF supports Primary Engineer, a not-for-profit company designed to promote STEM subjects in primary schools (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Acting as a broker between schools and the wider industry, the group trains teachers how to create engineering projects and supplies speakers from member companies who are willing to try and inspire a classroom of seven-year-olds – as one teacher put it, “STEM by stealth”.

“The object is to translate manufacturing and engineering to the real world, and show the children it’s all around them,” says Ms O’Keefe. “Speakers will ask children, when you got up this morning, what was the first thing you did? You put on your shoes . . . do you know how they’re made? You got the bus to school . . . do you know how that works? We need to get rid of this image that manufacturing is all about production lines.”

Introducing a discussion about engineering at such a young age will, industrialists hope, go some way to solving the UK’s shortage which the Royal Academy of Engineering forecasts will rise to 200,000 by 2020.

Other employers targeting primary schools include Siemens, which launches a scheme introducing children to the technology used in MRI scanners and X-rays in September, which it hopes to extend to all 23,000 of the UK’s primary schools. And Jaguar Land Rover has devised a Primary School Challenge which enables children to design and test a miniature race car.

“In the early stages, we find there are an equal number of young girls and young boys interested in engineering, but as you go up the education system, we seem to lose [the girls],” says Ms O’Keefe.

Engineering UK, the industry’s careers promotion body, is particularly focused on Year 8 students, aged 12-13, who are about to make their GCSE subject choices.

“Students don’t realise they can limit their future career options quite dramatically, and even dent their future earnings, by the choices they make,” says chief executive Paul Jackson. The group’s annual research shows that students with engineering, physics and maths degrees can earn up to 25 per cent more than average graduate salaries – a premium that also applies to Level 3 vocational qualifications in engineering.

“You don’t know about that at 13,” says Mr Jackson. Students – particularly girls – who drop chemistry and physics at this age are effectively locking themselves out of engineering careers as they will not be able to pursue these subjects at A-level.

“Young people make decisions that limit their future careers at a time when careers advice and guidance is quite limited,” he says. “At the start of our programmes, when we ask girls aged 11-14 if they think a career in engineering is desirable, three quarters say no. After one day at our annual Big Bang fair, which showcases the breadth of careers in engineering, we double those numbers and work hard with the schools afterwards to ensure the numbers remain up.”

The success of the Big Bang, a four-day annual event for schools at Birmingham’s NEC supported by 200 companies including energy groups Shell, Centrica, Eon, National Grid and British Gas plus eight universities, is impressive.

Mr Jackson said the younger attendees wanted interaction – watching experiments and pressing buttons – but the older ones “want to have a conversation with someone to obtain careers advice and ask what it’s like for them”.

Half of employers quizzed in the CBI survey said schools should develop a greater awareness of working life among 14 to 19-year-olds, with support from businesses, and two-thirds said they were prepared to take on a larger role in the school careers system.

Engineering UK is currently piloting a schools database in the north east, to better co-ordinate the relationship with businesses and schools, and plot the resulting shift in subject choices.

In the US, the ExxonMobil Foundation will run a programme of 20 summer camps this year for middle school students, where up to 1,000 students will be mentored by Dr Bernard A Harris Jr, the first African-American to walk in space, whose own foundation is jointly supporting the scheme.

“From building models of bridges to designing robots and creating spacesuits, students see first-hand engineering, science, technology and math come alive through real-world applications,” says Dr Harris.

As an industry, we haven’t done a good enough job of marketing these careers

“It is all about changing the mindset,” says Sarah Howell, European communications manager at ExxonMobil, which also runs its own education programmes for children in the UK and Europe.

Now in its fifth year, Exxon’s European Sci-Tech challenge saw students from nine countries work together in multi-country teams in April to design the safest, fastest and most energy efficient Formula 1 racing car for the 2040 F1 season.

Held at the McLaren Technology Centre in Surrey, students were judged by a panel of engineers from both companies, and told the solution “had got to work, and had got to be commercial”.

“They’re all very keen on inventing computer games, but that’s not going to change the world,” adds Ms Howell. “Our job is to show them practical things they can do with the same inventiveness and creativeness.”

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