Want to crush climate catastrophe? You better develop engineers early

To face many of the challenges of climate change or pandemic recovery, we need STEM workers in Australia to provide solutions to complex issues. How? Address skills shortages in primary school.

Reports about the shortage of a technically qualified workforce in engineering are not new, and have been reported in the media for decades. However, despite decades of research focused on national investment, education priorities, access to outreach programs and negative attitudes to STEM, Australia has not been able to turn this around.

Our research indicates that the focus for growing a skilled engineering workforce should be in our primary schools, where there is strong potential to harness interest exhibited in engineering-type activities. If this interest is sustained through secondary school by providing up-to-date advice to students, our efforts might lead to tertiary study options.

Falling STEM participation

In Australia, despite an overall increase in Year 12 enrolments, participation in the sciences (apart from earth sciences) and advanced maths dropped in the decade to 2012.

These trends and projections of enrolment in tertiary engineering studies suggest a shortfall in scientific and technical capabilities that could compromise Australia’s potential to be at the forefront of global scientific and technological development. A similar picture is occurring in the UK, US, and continental Europe.

We believe young people’s negative views about engineering contribute to this, including the view that engineers are ‘geeks’, wear hard hats, and that engineering is a career better suited to men.

To unearth how these views are formed we surveyed more than 2,500 Australian students about their interests in, attitudes towards, and knowledge and understandings of engineering. We sought the views of primary school students (555 in Year 5), high school students (493 in Year 11), and tertiary students (1,517 university students in the first and fourth years of engineering degrees).

Primary students favour engineering

Broadly, we found that primary school aged students were more positively predisposed to engineering than secondary students; that careers advisors provided strong influences on high school students choices; and that university engineering students were motivated not only by the financial rewards associated with their potential careers but by a long-held interest in maths, science, and engineering-type activities.

This leads us to conclude that there is strong potential to harness and work with interest in engineering at an early age, and there is work needed to leverage advice and sustain interest at secondary school.

And this has important ramifications for directing efforts to promote careers in engineering.

Our research supports initiatives to target the early years; that early exposure and continuous development with science and engineering concepts can affect retention and sustain interest in STEM in later school careers and fields of study.

Tapping into an enjoyment of mathematics and science as early as possible in primary school, when the interest is very high, could potentially lead to greater interest in the engineering profession.

A need to break stereotypes

Our study revealed some other interesting findings that have policy ramifications.

Primary students were significantly more interested in engineering-type activities than high school students, and primary students were less inclined to think people who did science and engineering were ‘geeks’.

For primary students, maths was more interesting than science, but the reverse was true for secondary and university students.

Primary, secondary and university students all said gender equality was desirable, with only a tiny minority of students not supportive – less than half a percent in the Year 4 engineering sample. However, in both our university groups, males made up approximately 80% of the sample.

And while stereotyping by gender decreased as students became older, the tendency to associate engineering with ‘geekiness’ increased.

Year 11 students had lower perceptions of engineers than Year 5 students.

About 25% of school students did not find maths interesting and about 20% did not find science interesting.

For the Year 11 students, interest in computing was lower than for maths or science, and almost half of them did not find computing interesting.

Careers advisors were named as the main influence by the majority of secondary students interested in engineering, as opposed to information from their dad or brother, which was the major source for primary students.

For all school students, popular media (TV and internet) and teachers were seen as important sources of information.

An urge to invent

Most engineering students say their motivation to become engineers stems from a natural inclination towards maths and science or an ‘urge to invent’.

Among engineering students, 59% had no engineers in their family, 27% had one, and 9% had two; 7% had female engineers in their families.

A valuable finding from this study is that an interest in maths, science, engineering or an ‘urge to invent’ are the driving forces behind a career in engineering (not financial reward) and that this interest develops early.

The key seems to be to engage students when they are young and still receptive to STEM ways of thinking and sustain this interest with relevant career advice in secondary school.

Elena Prieto is an Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at the University of Newcastle. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and a PhD in Theoretical Computer Science. From 2005, she has worked extensively in STEM education, including several Australia-wide research projects. She is currently engaged in projects focused on equity in STEM and teacher professional development.

Image of young boy in header from the Smithsonian Lemelson Center Greatest Invention Day and is used under a Creative Commons licence. It has been lightly cropped.