Plant & Works Engineering
Report highlights children are natural engineers
Published:  01 July, 2014

Young children are natural engineers says a new report by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which also explains that the primary school system does not encourage that mindset and even secondary school teaching of engineering is highly variable. The engineering organisation has repeatedly highlighted a looming skills shortage in the engineering sector.

Researchers at the University of Winchester's Centre for Real World Learning, who prepared the report, Thinking like an engineer - implications for the education system, interviewed a wide variety of engineering educators and practising engineers to identify six 'engineering habits of mind' that generate very specific ways of thinking and approaching problems.

The report makes a strong case to suggest that, if the UK wants to produce more engineers, we need to redesign the education system so that these habits of mind become embedded.

Young children, who the report says are natural born engineers, constantly seek to understand the properties of materials as they engage with the world around them. "Young children exhibit engineering habits of mind in the raw”, the report explains. "When the cardboard structure they have built is strong enough to support the weight of other toys and becomes a medieval castle, there is the thrill of persistent and successful experimentation."

However, the education system has come to expect young people to move away from practical learning as they grow up and to become more theoretical and abstract. "Schools, like post-Enlightenment society, choose to persist in believing that people who design, make and fix things must be less intelligent than those who can write essays, make speeches or understand quadratic equations”, says the report.

While citing outstanding examples of innovative teaching practice at all levels, the report says that "too many primary and secondary schools almost manage to extinguish the prototype engineering ability latent in young children". It proposes that the engineering teaching and learning community considers redesigning curricula - primary, secondary, further and higher education and, potentially, family learning - starting from the premise that they are trying to cultivate learners who think like engineers.

The introduction of the new National Curriculum for England from September 2014 offers an important moment to create more opportunities for engineering through the new programmes of study for computing, mathematics, and science, as well as design and technology. The report recommends that organisations promoting engineering should seize this opportunity to support schools in introducing more engineering-based content to the new curriculum.

Report author Professor Bill Lucas, director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester, says: "Engineers think differently from the rest of the world. And society badly needs their problem-solving, systems-thinking and relentlessly-seeking-to-make-and-improve mindset. Yet the education system does little to teach in ways that will cultivate the engineers we will need. We leave it too late and, too often, teach it too dully. This has to change."