The big picture: parental guidance

Posted on 2 Apr 2012

Dr Tim Minshall, senior lecturer in technology management at Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing asks if arming parents with better information about engineering might address the sector’s skills shortfall.

A recent survey, conducted by Siemens and WorldSkills International, of 11-14 year-old children revealed that most of them thought engineering is boring, dirty and not important. Eighty three per cent of parents meanwhile, would encourage their children into engineering, a figure which might have been higher if three-quarters did not feel they had insufficient access to information to allow them to advise on a career in engineering.

This is really worrying. Engineers play a critical role in a balanced economy but if parents can’t explain and enthuse about what engineers do, children are less likely to consider the career option.

There is actually a huge amount of information available for parents and teachers on engineering as a career. Websites such as ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ and the National STEM Centre are excellent resources. Nonetheless, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. We need to do more.

One approach that is being experimented with in Cambridge is to have a simple, standard talk on engineering delivered in schools by parents who are engineers, and current engineering undergraduates.

The talk is structured around 10 words to illustrate what it is that engineers do. A short video clip, a quick story, or a practical exercise then illustrates each word. The words are: Invent; Do; Improve; Share, Shape; Build; Why? Yes! Oops! and Wow!

For example, ‘Shape’ can be illustrated by getting children to build plasticine models of cartoon characters, and then showing how this activity relates to deformation and additive and subtractive processes used to make blades in gas turbines.

By keeping the material simple, structured and engaging, engineering is not being ‘dumbed down’ but rather made relevant to the target age group. And the material is delivered by someone children can identify to their own parents should they be inspired to want to know more. Ensuring accessibility of career information for children and parents alike is key.

For more information contact Dr Tim Minshall.