28 May 2014   |   Network News

“Children need better engineering role models than Homer Simpson”

A band of enthusiastic reformers want to see more problem-solving lessons on school curricula

Reading, writing and arithmetic are all very well but early learning doesn’t do enough to connect children’s brains with their hands.

The scene was Shell’s global headquarters in the Hague last week, and Maya Halevy, director of the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem was, “selling a new kind of teaching” to an audience of teachers and science museum coordinators.

The project she coordinates, the EU-sponsored ENGINEER, is trying to open up space in European school curricula for practical science, a subject that experts say is both flawed and underdeveloped in schools.

Children may be taught how many legs a grasshopper has and how to dry leaves between books, but not how a car runs. They learn about volcanoes but don’t know how a tap works. 

“We focus on 2 per cent and neglect the 98 percent, in other words”, said Ioannis Miaoulis, president and director of the Museum of Science in Boston.

The battle for hearts and minds is not so easy, said Klaas Engelsma, chief of Shell’s social investment programme. “The choice today for kids – go to a cool college where you can learn new media and gaming, or go to a technical university to learn how to fix a valve,” he said. “But the world need makers,” he added.

To invest in makers, Europe’s school curricula need a shake-up, said Miaoullis, drawing on the US example to stress how ingrained ideas can become. “The curriculum we have in the United States today was decided in 1893 in Harvard,” he said. “Most kids were growing up on farms then – the educators left engineering out of the picture because kids were getting agricultural engineering instruction at home.”

The three year €3 million ENGINEER project is funded to the end of October 2014, and when asked on the subject of further funding for the project, Halevy said, “of course, we shouldn’t rely on the European Commission alone.” The project will continue to look for philanthropic support after its term ends.

Making “makers”

If children were to continue following Homer Simpson – the most prominent engineer in television as Miaoulis points out – and his mantra of “never try”, Europe would be in trouble.

What we see across Europe is that students’ interest in science falls away after a few years, said Halevy.

“Why are we seeing this? We thought about this and realised the subject is not seen as relevant enough,” she said.

“The way it’s taught might be the problem – we thought about how we could approach and change it,” she added.  

But what classroom engineering challenges may be scalable for a young child?

“It can be everyday examples,” replied Miaoulis. “If you have a child allergic to the classroom pet rabbit, challenge them to build a hut for it outside.”

ENGINEER developed ten engineering challenges which range from building a glider to making a new home for frogs. The approach is based on a programme developed by BMOS and now widely used in primary schools throughout the US.

Quentin Cooper, presenter of BBC Radio 4's ‘Material World’, said his son Hal, named after the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, wanted to be an engineer when he grew up – “in between the times he wants to be an astronaut and a bus driver.”

Not every child fits this mould: the different toys we introduce to them is part of the problem.

Boys’ toys, like footballs and lego, impart better 3D visualisation skills than girls’. This explains why we see early lags in girls’ performance in engineering tests, said Miaoullis – a gap that is closed over time.

Even though there’s no word in the Dutch language for engineer, the worth of makers to Shell and other heavy industry is huge.

“It’s close to our hearts but of course there’s a clear need for it in society aswell,” said Dick Benschop, president-director of Shell Netherlands.  

Like ENGINEER, Shell sponsors early practical science initiatives. “We’re hoping that one of our programmes can be the spark for kids,” added Benschop.

Resisting resistance

Selling a new way of teaching has met with some roadblocks. Surprisingly the biggest obstacle is often teachers themselves.

Some teachers find it difficult to teach science already without suggesting a class on engineering on top of that, said Miaoulis.

You can encounter some vested interests – “every teacher wants to ensure their subject has enough space in the curriculum,” he added.

At one point during the conference a teacher in the audience asked, “We don’t teach children medicine or veterinary science or law either – so why is engineering so important to teach?”

The emphasis is on process, the panel members answered: engineering can give maths and science more relevance.

Engineer: a too-fluid title

Protecting the true name of engineering is a part of the battle for the reformers too.

“Americans use the term ‘engineering’ for everything,” said Miaoulis. “The man who unblocks your hotel toilet is now called an engineer.”

Quentin Cooper, presenter of BBC Radio 4's Material World, experienced a similar thing in the UK. “I saw an advert for a ‘restaurant hygiene engineer’ – they were looking for someone to wash dishes,” he said.  

Even NASA, added Miaoulis, could do more to rehabilitate the name: “when they put a rover on Mars it’s a ‘science miracle’ but when something goes wrong with it, it’s an ‘engineering error’.”

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