Young children are natural engineers, but the primary school system does not encourage that mindset and even secondary school teaching of engineering is highly variable, according to a report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which 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:

  • Systems thinking
  • Adapting
  • Problem finding
  • Creative problem solving
  • Visualising
  • Improving

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 are natural born engineers, says the report, constantly seeking 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 says. "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."

Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng, Chair of the Academy's Standing Committee for Education and Training, says: "This insightful work suggests that even with an improved public engagement with engineering, our current education system in the UK does not sufficiently develop the habits of mind of young people to encourage them to pursue further study towards engineering careers. The Academy is grateful to the authors for bringing a new perspective on an important issue for educating future generations of engineers in the UK."


Notes for editors

  1. Thinking like an engineer - implications for the education system, was prepared for the Academy by Professor Bill Lucas, Dr Janet Hanson and Professor Guy Claxton of the University of Winchester's Centre for Real World Learning.
    Thinking like an engineer - Implications for the education system - full report (2.44 MB)
    Thinking like an engineer - Implications for the education system - summary report (2.59 MB)
  1. Royal Academy of Engineering As the UK's national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK's role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK's world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook. We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.
  2. Centre for Real-World Learning (CRL) at the University of Winchester CRL is an innovative research centre working closely with practitioners in education and in a range of vocational contexts. It is especially interested in new thinking and innovative practices in two areas:
  • the science of learnable intelligence and the implementation of expansive approaches to education
  • The field of embodied cognition and its implications for practical learning and for vocational education.

For more information please contact:

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering 
Tel: 020 7766 0636
Email: Jane Sutton

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