Primary school teachers should encourage children to tinker, play, and experiment more in the classroom and even “embrace failure” to help encourage and develop a new generation of engineers.

That’s according to a new, joint report from The University of Manchester and the Royal Academy of Engineers (RAEng). Its authors also say there is lack of engineering-related teaching and a shortage of teachers in primary schools with a strong understanding of careers in engineering.

Schemes to boost engineering engagement for primary school-aged pupils are limited in comparison to those for older age groups. The lack of focus, in turn, is creating a skills shortage by the time pupils get to secondary, further and higher education where a lot of the initiatives to improve STEM engagement are currently being aimed.

Therefore, the report’s authors question whether the current primary education system has the capacity to help meet the forecasted shortfall in engineers over the coming years. Sector estimates say the profession is currently short of up to 20,000 graduate engineers a year, and up to 186,000 skilled recruits a year up to 2024.

To combat these the report says more funding and support is needed for primary teachers and engineering should be embedded in the primary curriculum, promoting more structured tinkering and playing at its core.

Dr Lynne Bianchi and Dr Jon Chippindall of the Science & Engineering Education Innovation and Research Hub (SEERIH) at the University of Manchester led the three-year Tinkering4Learning project that underpins the report, working with 30 teachers from 12 schools across Greater Manchester.

Dr Lynne Bianchi, Director of SEERIH and the report’s co-author, said: “Engineering does not typically exist in primary school curricula and we strongly recommend a focus on enriching the opportunities where young people can experience how engineering impacts on all of our lives.

“Within mainstream education as well as in extracurricular activity or at afterschool clubs, we know that young people thrive on the opportunity to get hands on with real life challenges, and enjoy the collaborative experience of both success and indeed overcoming failure.

“As the Government places a greater emphasis on the industrial strategy we see a window of opportunity to embed creative engineering thematic curriculum in primary schools.”

To do this the report has developed seven principles of engineering education in primary and secondary schools to help encourage children to think and learn as an engineer at a much earlier age. To develop these principles the researchers worked closely with teachers to test how and why ‘tinkering’ could be a help them and their pupils work and learn in “playful, experimental, practical and make-rich ways”.

At the heart of these principles is empowering teachers to be creative when getting children to learn about engineering, this includes simply playing, tinkering and not being afraid of failure or making mistakes.

Co-author and SEERIH’s Engineering Champion, Dr Jonathan Chippindall, added: “We accept that using the term tinkering in this way could lead to potential misunderstandings with the general premise of tinkering is an act of aimless exploration or activity, however, we can ensure the activities identified within this report are structured and purposeful.

“We found teachers responded positively to the opportunity for creative teaching and learning. With senior leadership support, commitment and bravery, teachers can find the space for engineering education to underpin and thrive within mainstream primary school settings.”

The report also recommends teachers themselves should come together more often to share best professional practice, not just with each other but other sector stakeholders including engineers, academics and students, although this can be tricky due to a teacher’s demanding schedule.

Dr Bianchi said: “We understand this could be difficult as teacher commitment required for this approach is high. It is also challenged by current funding and accountability pressures in the school system, which require teacher classroom ‘release time’ to be limited, or targeted at high-impact activity. It’s essential that senior leaders embrace a new phase of opportunity that not only enhances young people’s life chances, but also enriches their learning experience today through engaging, rich and collaborative learning that has relevance and meaning to things they see in their everyday lives.”


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