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14 July, 2024

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Building our engineering future starts at primary school

01 April, 2024

The UK needs to put far more effort into engendering an interest in technical topics at the primary school level, if we are going to create the engineering workforce that we will need to survive and thrive in the future, argues Nikesh Mistry*, Gambica’s sector head for automation.

Engineering needs a primary school makeover. Imagine a classroom buzzing with activity. Students aren’t hunched over textbooks, but huddled around a mini wind turbine that they’ve constructed from recycled materials. Laughter fills the air as they experiment with different blade designs, testing their creation in a simulated wind tunnel. This could be a glimpse into a future where engineering finds its rightful place – in primary school curriculums.

The curious reality is that engineering, a field that shapes our world from bridges to smartphones, often gets relegated to the margins of secondary education, and is usually seen as a specialised track rather than a foundational skill. This perception not only hinders student interest during their crucial formative years, but also contributes to the global shortage of skilled engineers.
I had no idea that an engineer is exactly what I wanted to be in life until I was very close to choosing my degree during A-levels. Until then I was unaware about what career prospects an engineer would have, let alone the opportunities that are available today.
Engineering is not just about fixing machines or building houses; it’s about problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity – skills essential for thriving in the 21st century. The disconnect lies in the traditional definition of vocational subjects. Often the broader value of the skills attained by engineers are either overlooked, neglected, or sought after by non-technical industries. 
So why is engineering absent from many primary classrooms? One reason is a teacher training gap. Educators often lack the resources and confidence to integrate engineering principles into existing subjects. Another factor is the pressure on standardised testing, mock exams, periodic testing, exams and exam boards – all of which prioritise learning core subjects and applying theory via comprehension over creative exploration.
But the tide is turning. As working conditions and requirements are changing in society, so is awareness of the availability of jobs, and with this, the importance of engineering. The rise of STEM education initiatives recognises how connected these fields are. Engineering serves as a bridge between scientific principles and real-world applications, making it the glue that holds STEM together. Gambica members have already been pushing for more STEM ambassadors within our member companies through our Gambica Young Council, which has a working group to encourage STEM. 
Integrating engineering into primary schools doesn't require a complete curriculum overhaul. Simple, age-appropriate activities can spark a lifelong passion for problem-solving. Imagine students designing the sturdiest paper tower, building the most efficient water filter, or coding simple robots to navigate an obstacle course. These seemingly playful tasks introduce core engineering concepts – design thinking, resource management, and understanding of cause-and-effect. You might say this is already done in schools, but it’s not labelled as “engineering” but as a “team-building” task which students feel is more of a novelty than aimed at learning.
The benefits extend far beyond career preparation. Engineering activities foster critical thinking and creativity. Students learn to approach challenges from different angles, experiment with solutions, and collaborate to achieve a common goal.  These are precisely the skills that employers are seeking in today's dynamic job market.
Of course, nurturing future engineers requires a long-term commitment. Exposing children to engineering principles at primary school level, lays the groundwork for a more advanced exploration later. When students reach secondary school, they’ll be better equipped to grasp complex engineering concepts, leading to a more robust talent pool at the university level. This, in itself, is why we should pay more attention to organisations such as Primary Engineer, which focuses on ensuring primary schools have the right opportunities to educate their students in STEM.
The world is facing unprecedented challenges from climate change, sustainable development, wars and political uncertainty – to name a few.  We need a generation of engineers equipped with the creativity and problem-solving skills to tackle them. Let’s build a future where engineering isn’t just a career path, but a foundational skill nurtured from the start of a child’s educational journey. By making engineering a part of the primary school experience, we’re not just building bridges and robots, we’re building the future workforce, one curious young mind at a time. 
* Gambica is the trade association for the automation, control, instrumentation and laboratory technology sectors in the UK. You can get in touch with Nikesh Mistry on 020 7642 8094 or nikesh.mistry@gambica.org.uk, or via the Gambica Web site: www.gambica.org.uk 




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