You do the math

Posted on 12 Feb 2010 by The Manufacturer

The Children, Schools and Families Committee investigates STEM teaching standards.

By Jane Gray, Lean Management Journal commissioning editor

On Wednesday (Feb 11) the Children, Schools and Families Parliamentary Committee held an enquiry into teaching STEM subjects in Britain. It tested the possible effect that failure here is having on the wellbeing of our industrial economy — in particular engineering and manufacturing.
The enquiry came on the heels of a paper published by the Committee on Tuesday into the training of teachers following extensive research into the state of testing, assessment, and responsibility of schools in Britain.

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics attended the meeting to give evidence, as did Engineering UK, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMecE) and supporting academics from the Universities of Birmingham and King’s College London.

The inquiry touched on the oft-lamented, lacklustre image of engineering careers in the UK and sought to identify how more appropriate teacher training might turn this situation around, providing more connected education for enduring knowledge and enthusiasm.

Professor Margaret Brown of King’s College London argued that coaching for the public exams, defined by competitive exam boards, undermined the quality of teaching in mathematics leading to “fragmented and procedural knowledge which does not endure”.

Dr. Tony Gardiner of the University of Birmingham went further to suggest that teachers themselves were suffering from the effects of the “modular disease” and needed to be trained to a “craft level knowledge of their subjects”. He identified that the PGCE methodology was too rushed and favoured the approach of the Bachelor in Education.
The witnesses representing the voice of engineering acknowledged Gardiner’s point that mathematics was the “mother tongue” of other STEM disciplines but complained that even if the teaching of mathematics was to improve dramatically there is still a basic lack of enthusiasm for engineering as a career choice.

This is despite the fact that the UK has a manufacturing sector five times the size of the financial services sector which is still a popular career choice for the numerically talented. There are, however, proportionately more true shop floor level jobs in manufacturing than financial services.

IMechE identifies the teaching of design and technology (DT)in schools as a key route through which to solve this image problem. In 1997, Ofsted revealed that as many as two thirds of schools were not realising the potential of DT to create capable members of a technological society. Particularly in primary schools, IMechE is asking for the link between DT — a highly popular subject area — and engineering, to be highlighted so that when children reach 14 the engineering diploma, now available in a growing number of schools, will seem a viable and attractive option for them.

The IMechE spokesman did emphasise, however, that the manufacturing and engineering community ought to feel optimistic about the future saying: “Our time is coming. The major challenges now faced by society— those of climate, energy, food and water — are engineering challenges,” meaning that for the first time in a long time economic forces are pushing engineering prominently up the political agenda.