The importance of technology education

Engineering, technology, and science generate wealth, prosperity, and growth.

Between 2000 and 2008, nearly two-thirds of the UK's growth was attributed to innovation. Science and technology are becoming increasingly important to both developed and developing countries. In Australia and elsewhere, immigration fills the gap between the number of engineers and scientists required by industry and what universities produce.

How can we change the negative stereotypes that are so damaging to young people's perceptions of what it's like to be an engineer or scientist?

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Children have real understanding only of the which they invent themselves.”
— Jean Piaget

Engineering, technology and science creates wealth, prosperity and growth. Yet fewer young people are interested in pursuing them as a career. Why? And what does that mean for our continuing prosperity as individuals and societies?

Let’s consider some numbers first. A joint statement from the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society suggests that in the UK, between the years 2000 and 2008, nearly two-thirds of the country’s growth is attributed to innovation (1). Much of this innovation has been either directly in engineering, science and technology, or there is a direct relation to them. Further, the statement shows that continuous investment in research has long-term economic and social benefits.

Thanks to the continuing investment in science and technology over a long period of time, UK research has resulted in 14 out of the top 100 medicines in use today (second only to the US), globally. And 95% of mobile phones in use today contain technology developed in the UK.

The same statement says that there is a trend towards increased emphasis on technology and science training among many of the world’s nations. For example, in 2013, President Obama said that “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race” during his State of the Union Address. Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has called for his country to “endeavour to harness the tools of science to cater to the needs of the underprivileged and to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

Across the board, developed and developing countries are realising that science and technology are vital to the long-term stability and prosperity of their people. China’s spending in science has been increasing at a rate of 19% since 2000, and now consumes 1.7% of its GDP. Brazil tripled its spending on research and development between 2000 and 2008. Singapore is doing the same. Finland is spending almost 4% of its GDP on science and technology research and development; Germany has committed an additional 12bn Euros to science and technology education and research.

The stakes are high, and the competition is growing.

Science and technology is vital to everything, from individual prosperity, to nation building and growing, and to addressing global problems like that of energy and the environment. To be able to successfully address these challenges, small armies of properly trained scientists and engineers will be needed.

Australia is struggling to produce these scientists and engineers (2). Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, addressing attendees at a maths and science education symposium in Canberra, said that Australia needs a strategy to boost its international standing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or risk falling behind (3).

STEM education does not intend to convert all students into scientists or engineers, but to equip them with the ability to think like a scientist or an engineer.

The ability to systematically evaluate evidence, plan and execute a plan, self-correct based on new evidence, document and communicate findings, and much more, are all attributes that are very strong in STEM activities, but can be very useful across a vast range of activities. Imagine what science-like journalism would be like, or retail sales, or even community work.

Science and engineering, and the scientific approach in almost every aspect of life in an advanced society can also be seen as an unbeatable advantage for any country. Authors like Niall Ferguson, in his book Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, recognise the six ‘killer apps’ that allowed several Western European countries to dominate globally: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Of these killer apps, all but the work ethic require a great deal of science and engineering (as the application arm of science) to get right and improve over time based on new evidence. Designing a healthy and fair competitive system, a property legal system, a health system and the framework in which a consumer society can function all require systematic design over long periods of time. This is science and engineering at a large scale!

Once we expose more students to STEM education, we need to be able to convert more of them to becoming engineers and scientists. In Australia, and elsewhere, the gap between the amount of engineers and scientists required by industry and what universities produced is filled by immigration. However, considering that the same immigrants are claimed by other countries, this approach is not enough (4).

Reversing the engineer and scientist stereotype is not easy. Popular imagination expects engineers to wear hardhats and mismatched socks, and engage in boring conversations. We imagine scientists as peculiar people that wear lab coats and smell of sulphur. In many cultures, being a lawyer or a police detective is glorified on TV. In the same shows, scientists are typically depicted as reclusive eccentrics that talk and behave like robots. Dr Spock from Star Trek, my personal movie hero, and Dr Emmett Brown from Back to the Future often come to mind. These are entertaining characters, but only the hard core among viewers would want to be like them.

We know that almost every child is naturally attracted to science and engineering. LEGO’s success can attest to this.

How can we change the negative stereotypes that are so detrimental to young people’s perspective of what life as an engineer or scientist is like, so that they want to become one themselves (5)?

Here are some ideas.

We can engage real scientists and engineers to visit schools on a regular basis and talk about their work. Engineers from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, male and female, quirky or “normal”. Give children the opportunity to interact with them, even work on projects where the visiting engineer can be the mentor for a while.

Organise for children to visit engineers and scientists where they work: at the lab, the factory floor, the design studio, the construction site. In the mind of a child, nothing can imprint reality more than the real-life experience of witnessing something with their full senses engaged.

Ask real engineers and scientists to talk about their work and why it is important. A water engineer can explain to a class that her work results in the people of a large city having access to tap water, on demand. An electrical engineer can explain that their work makes it possible for them to turn on the lights at night. A medical researcher can explain that their work helps them recover from the flu.

Just imagine the impact that an engineer telling their story of designing spacecraft that will mine asteroids in the near future will have on a young mind’s imagination. There is nothing more powerful!

The best way to satisfy the increasing demand of every society for more engineers, scientists, mathematicians and artists is to show learners examples of them as real people: what they do, and the impact that they have in the real world and directly in their lives. In the true spirit of Maker Education, learning by making is the best way to learn. Similarly, there is nothing more powerful than being inspired by reality, the achievements of real people who are like you and me, and who, through hard work, determination and a long-term vision, have influenced the lives of millions in a very real way.


Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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