2018 is the Year of Engineering, a UK Government campaign to increase awareness and understanding of what engineers do amongst young people. The reason for the drive is that despite demand, good career opportunities and higher than average earnings, industry struggles to recruit and retain the talent it needs. Many young people, especially women and those from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, do not consider engineering as something they could, or want, to do. In this blog post, Dr Diane Harris and Dr Maria Pampaka, lead project investigators for the Futures in Engineering initiative, highlight some of the reasons why this might be, and what needs to change.

Where are all the engineers?

The UK currently lacks the number of engineers it needs in a technological and fast-changing world and therefore the engineering sector, government and education need to work together to address this skills shortage. In addition, only 9% of professional engineers in the UK are women, at 55,706 out of a 640,300 strong engineering workforce, and this percentage remains stubbornly static, compared with 23% across STEM (Women in Science and Engineering, 2017). This is the lowest percentage of women engineers of the 28 European countries, over half of which have at least 20%, a review of engineering skills found. Research suggests there are social justice implications in the female under-representation within engineering in the UK specifically (Rhys Jones, 2011) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology Women’s Network has initiated a campaign to improve the situation #9PercentIsNotEnough (2017).

When considering ethnic minority women employed as professional engineers, the percentages fall still further since the data show that men and women together only represent 6% of this workforce (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2015). The issue is one of culture and there is a need for cultural change/transformation that will open up both recruitment and subsequent employment in engineering industries and STEM more generally.

Do people (particularly parents, family and teachers) know enough about engineering?

In general people don’t tend to be that familiar with engineering and what professional engineers do for a living, despite the huge role that engineers play in all our lives. In a nutshell, everything that hasn’t been created in nature has been engineered. Engineers can therefore be thought of as professional problem solvers, creating solutions to thousands of problems, from ensuring we have enough electricity/energy to perform our daily tasks while looking for new sustainable sources to protect the environment, to enabling people with physical disabilities to compete on the world stage in sports because of the creativity of engineers to design the appropriate solution.

Our own research findings show that parents/family were highly influential in school pupil’s decisions about what they wanted to do next, during Years 7 to Year 11 (when aged 11 to 16 years old). Students with relatives who are or were engineers are more knowledgeable about the subject and are also more prepared to go into engineering than their peers. Conversely, some suitably qualified students aren’t studying engineering because their parents/family don’t know enough about it. However, other suitably qualified students know somewhat more and link engineering with design and technology classes where they have had the opportunity to enjoy design and build activities. In the sixth form (16-18 year olds), we also found that students with engineers in the family are more knowledgeable about the subject and are also more prepared to go into engineering than their classmates.

Mathematics, its teaching and mathematics anxiety

Mathematics plays a significant role in engineering students’ overall success or failure on many engineering degree programmes, but could we be teaching it differently and get a different result? To economize on the use of resources, mathematics in engineering is sometimes taught as a ‘service subject’, taught by lecturers of mathematics, rather than those with an understanding of engineering.  These courses may also cater for more than one subject discipline or indeed more than one ‘audience’, mixing overseas students with good mathematical skills but poor English with native English speakers with poor mathematical abilities.

One of the most difficult aspects of the transition between school and university for students to feel positive about, are those that relate to teaching. Students found the more traditional and transmissionist teaching practices – teacher-centred and more abstract, rather than interactive and using ‘real-life’ examples – difficult, yet our, surveys found that engineering students report that this is generally the situation. These findings are also consistent with our interview data and is an issue that needs to be addressed if we are to maximise the success and retention of engineering students.

In addition, there is the issue of mathematics anxiety which relates closely to this. The recent systematic review of almost 800 mathematics anxiety papers for the British Academy identified ways to reduce or alleviate maths anxiety for students at various educational levels, and in various fields of study. For engineering students, mathematics anxiety has a negative impact on their mathematics scores and is similar for both men and women.

The level of mathematics anxiety experienced by learners is related to the feeling that mathematics can be difficult, involves a lot of writing and is easy to fail, which leads to a lack of understanding and a loss of interest in the subject. Engineering students are found to have additional contributing factors to their levels of mathematics anxiety brought about by their performance in electromagnetics (a particularly mathematically demanding programme) and their overall achievement at the end of their first year at university.

The good news is that mathematics anxiety can be reduced by developing courses designed to improve skills, increase interest, and engage students in critical thinking, so this also needs to be tackled in engineering courses.

Gender and stereotype threat

Educational, professional and life opportunities may be limited by the influence of gender stereotyping and this is particularly pertinent in engineering and maths. So how does this happen? Undeniably, women are equally as capable as men at performing well in mathematics but they can be adversely affected by the negative gender stereotype i.e. preconceived ideas which arbitrarily assign characteristics and roles to women (and men) that are determined and restricted by their gender (for example that men have better spatial awareness than women and are better at reading maps).

Gender stereotyping also applies to engineering itself. We can speculate that this contributes to that fact that only 9% of professional engineers in the UK are women and so a lot more work needs to be done.

Policy suggestions and looking to the future

Our research findings indicate that there is much that policymakers can do, starting with changes to primary and secondary education, higher education, and social inclusion. The findings can inform the teaching of STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools and the advice given by teachers and others responsible for helping pupils make important decisions about continuing their education and careers.  At universities, the findings can inform tutors and lecturers about improving open day experiences for prospective engineering students and offers insights into university engineering programmes and how elements need to be taught, (particularly the way in which mathematics is integrated into the programmes).  We also need to look specifically at women, BAME students and inequalities, where the research provides insight into what factors deter these groups from entering engineering.  Recruiting and retaining these engineers would go some way towards reducing the skills shortage but, possibly more importantly, they would bring a different perspective to the challenges of problem-solving in the twenty-first century and through our research, we aim to uncover what needs to change.

We applaud the government for launching a public campaign to improve understanding of engineering and hope this is only the start of a much-needed cultural shift. Much more needs to be done to communicate how engineering shapes our lives and inspire the next generation of engineers, one that needs to attract more young people and better represent all of our communities.

As the Year of Engineering website points out, ‘From spaceships to ice skates, the bubbles in chocolate bars to life saving cancer treatment, engineering touches every part of our lives.’

The Futures in Engineering Project which is also supported by Jaguar Land Rover, IBM UK Ltd., Women’s Engineering Society and AEON Engineering Ltd. This project aims to inform policy and practice so that changes can be made to current approaches   the recruitment and retention of engineering students and practising engineers.