TOPIC GUIDE: Engineering and education

"Anyone can become an engineer"

PUBLISHED: 10 Jun 2016

AUTHOR: Adam Rawcliffe

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The UK is suffering an engineering skills shortfall, prompting many in the industry to ask the question: can anyone become a scientist or engineer? [Ref: Bloomberg]. The Warwick Institute for Employment Research suggests that for a prosperous UK economy, an additional 1.82 million people will be needed in engineering jobs between 2012 and 2022 [Ref: Institution of Mechanical Engineers]. Engineering UK suggests that over the same timeframe there will be a shortfall of some 550,000 engineers and skilled technicians [Ref: Institution of Mechanical Engineers]. In a world which is ever more reliant on technology, there is “a danger that the UK as a whole, could miss out on the opportunities within advanced manufacturing and engineering due to ignorance and a lack of skills” [Ref: Telegraph]. If you dig deeper the trend only becomes more concerning. A tiny 7% of UK engineers are female, the lowest proportion in Europe, despite girls on the whole outperforming boys in science GCSEs [Ref: New Scientist]. In Singapore, where applied science is arguably more valued, 40% of graduates are engineers - skills incredibly attractive to foreign investors [Ref: Telegraph]. Within this context, Christine Cunningham, an education researcher and vice president at the Museum of Science in Boston, believes young children do not know what engineers are. When prompted to draw a picture of an engineer, students frequently depict train drivers or construction workers assembling buildings, bridges or roads [Ref: Discover Magazine]. With all of this in mind, are certain individuals inclined towards a STEM career, with an innate engineering disposition so strong, that it does not need developing in the way we assume other skills do? Or are lots of young people missing out on a technology or engineering career because they don’t know what engineering, is or what engineers do? Would better education prove that anyone can become an engineer, or are certain people born for a career in engineering?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Can anyone become an engineer?
Whilst many of us believe we can do anything we set our mind to, some in the science education community question whether we all have the capacity to become scientists or engineers. Greg Blonder argues that by the time we reach 11 years old, “the scientists, engineers, poets, basketball players, and beauty queens” have all sorted themselves out, “some by natural inclination, and some by peer pressure” [Ref: Bloomberg]. Whilst all children may be naturally inquisitive, some suggest that engineers think in a more analytical, methodical and detail-orientated way than the average person, perhaps making it a job for a specialised minority of people [Ref: Planet Analog]. Yet others argue that all children from an early age play in a way which lets them work out cause and effect, displaying the early signs of scientifically inquisitive minds [Ref: Scientific American]. Another aspect of the debate is the distinction between males and females, with some arguing that there is evidence that men and women’s brains are ‘wired differently’ – potentially leading one gender to prefer certain types of activity to others [Ref: BBC News]. Cambridge Professor, Simon Baron Cohen, suggests “that both sexes have equal scientific ability but females have a stronger interest in people”, leading more women into fields such as medicine and men into subjects such as maths and physics [Ref: Telegraph]. However, opponents are wary of these conclusions, and instead claim that societal pressures are what really influence such decisions, rather than innate female or male traits. Dame Mary Archer offers the explanation that women may not choose careers in science and engineering because such disciplines are associated with masculinity, and “there’s a sense that ‘I can’t be as womanly as a scientist as I could be as a beautician or a journalist’” [Ref: Telegraph].

How do we solve the engineering shortfall?
Those who believe there is a naturally inclined pool of would-be engineers, argue that the education system is not doing enough to nurture those who are interested in STEM subjects. From this perspective, there are those who claim that educators must “hunt and gather” the few natural technologists, rather than try to “sow and reap” a new crop from seed [Ref: Bloomberg]. While beneficial for all of us to be scientifically literate, not everyone needs to know how to solve redox equations or memorise the nomenclature of chemistry, biology and physics [Ref: Bloomberg]. But more broadly, there is the sense that the current education system in the UK is failing would-be engineers. The fact that children in the UK have to make specialist subject choices, often choosing between arts and sciences, as young as 14 years old means that many give up on STEM subjects too early [Ref: Cooling Post]. A broader curriculum up until the age of 18, with engineering as a subject, might lead more people to consider STEM related careers some argue [Ref: Institution of Mechanical Engineers]. Subjects such as Design and Technology could be greater utilised to teach the problem-solving, socially beneficial nature of engineering, in the hope that if the industry is portrayed in a better light, we may increase the pool from which future engineers are drawn [Ref: Telegraph]. Despite these suggestions, critics disagree, arguing instead that attracting the best and brightest from overseas, and removing barriers that prevent scientifically-inclined minds from fulfilling their potential, because of things such as poverty and discrimination, would do far more than broader scientific education for all [Ref: Bloomberg]. In the same vein, some think that academic snobbery is what actually pushes students away from technical occupations, and assert that careers counsellors should do more to promote vocational qualifications and apprenticeships, thus allowing young people reach the top of the industry. Without such measures, engineering’s 300 year history at the heart of the UK economy will be in jeopardy [Ref: Telegraph].

The role of engineers in society
Evidence suggests that a high proportion of engineers come from an engineering family background – thus learning about the discipline through family or friends [Ref: Institution of Mechanical Engineers]. Proponents of broader STEM education argue that we need a new understanding of what it means to be an engineer: “We need to raise the profile of an engineer to that of a doctor or solicitor,” Tracy Radford argues. “It’s vital to spread the word and ensure young people understand that engineering is a highly rewarding career, offering many paths and exciting experiences both at home and abroad” [Ref: Telegraph]. Engineering should be promoted as a people-focused and socially beneficial discipline referenced in the curriculum from primary school to university level [Ref: Institution of Mechanical Engineers]. However, for others, while technological literacy will be of upmost importance in the future, it is not necessary for everyone to be able to ‘think like a researcher’ [Ref: Galileo’s Pendulum]. Courses separated into the general and the professional would give us all a common language and appreciation for the vast promise, and limits, of technology, while increasing the base of home-grown scientists and engineers by directing our efforts where they will have most impact [Ref: Bloomberg]. In a future world where we all travel in driverless cars, receive healthcare from robots, and can tackle the world’s greatest problems like climate change with technology - how do we make sure that we have the engineers necessary to make these systems function? Are scientists and engineers unique groups of people born to follow certain vocational interests? Or, are we not doing enough to give all young people the opportunities to pursue engineering careers?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


An engineer’s mind: were we born this way?

Jason Bowden Planet Analog 28 January 2013

Studying engineering before they can spell it

Winnie Hu New York Times 13 June 2010

Scientists are born, not made

Greg Blonder Bloomberg 19 September 2006


Engineering should be taught in schools

Cooling Post 13 April 2016

Is there any science behind the lack of women in science?

Jennifer Rigby Telegraph 16 February 2015

Children are not ‘natural’ scientists

Matthew Francis Galileo's Pendulum 15 November 2012


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Big Ideas: The Future of engineering in schools

Institution of Mechanical Engineers April 2016

Mind the gap

Economist 11 April 2015

Five Tribes: Personalising engineering education

Institution of Mechanical Engineers December 2014

Teenage girls rule themselves out of engineering careers

Jessica Hamzelou New Scientist 29 November 2014

UK’s engineering shortage must, and can be fixed

Eric Bonino Telegraph 2 November 2014

Girls should be introduced to engineering at a young age

Chris Moss Telegraph 24 October 2014

A survey of engineering education throughout the world

Chris Titley E&T 15 September 2014

Teaching kids to think like engineers

Breanna Draxler Discover Magazine 5 November 2013

The global race for STEM skills

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education January 2013


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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