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Fostering engineering careers

Wendy Blundell

How the ICE is encouraging students.

In recent weeks I have had the feeling that there is increasing respect for engineering in the media. Fresh on the heels of the announcement of the £1M Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering we were treated to an inspiring Dimbleby Lecture by leading geneticist and Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse. Nurse explored the wonder of science and how it enhances our culture and civilisation, acknowledging that “society reaps the practical everyday benefits of science. Science generates knowledge which leads to applications through technologies and engineering for the public good”. This opinion of course resonates with our own Royal Charter.

However Nurse also identified that science education in our schools needs attention - an issue which is frequently discussed among ICE members. We know our economic future will not be achieved without the supply of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and knowledge and that must start with the attraction of young people into STEM disciplines at school. The next generation of A level students will face a world in which critical issues such as climate change, global health and making economies sustainable will depend on STEM. It will be the science and engineering professionals who will solve the world’s big problems and by doing so improve quality of life for all.

One of the most successful ways to inspire pupils by the wonder of science and attract the best and brightest students into STEM careers is to also attract the most inspirational teachers. This will be difficult if current trends continue with nearly all primary school teachers, 25% of chemistry teachers and a 33% of physics teachers having no specialist qualification in science.

Employers should also be concerned about the decline in the take up of mathematics post-GCSE with fewer than 20% of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland studying this fundamental subject.

In Northern Ireland I have raised these issues with our elected representatives at the recently formed All-Party Group (APG) on Science and Technology at the Northern Ireland Assembly. ICE Northern Ireland is participating in a mature discussion with our MLAs, ensuring relevant topics such as A-level mathematics enrolment, the primary school curriculum in Northern Ireland (where science is no longer taught as a discrete subject) and incentives for schools to encourage more uptake of STEM subjects at GCSE and A level, remain high on the political agenda.

The ICE also actively engages with schools through a range of school activities such as “Bridges to Schools”,

“Rapid Response Engineering Challenge” and “Create Sport”. These are exciting “hands-on” projects which not only promote civil engineering in a creative manner but also demonstrate how science and mathematics are applied in careers. This week we will see the Big Bang Fair taking place in Birmingham. This is the single largest celebration of science and engineering for young people in the UK (expecting 35,000 visitors over the three days) and the ICE will be there, continuing to engage with young people and inspiring them to pursue a career which allows them to use their STEM skills to benefit society.

  • Wendy Blundell is director, ICE Northern Ireland

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