Article - Issue 67, June 2016

Gender parity in engineering, The innovation needed in maths education

Naomi Climer FREng and Dr Ian Nussey OBE FREng

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GENDER PARITY IN ENGINEERING

Earlier this year, I was pleased to be invited to take part in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Celebrating leading women in engineering initiative. A dedicated page on the Academy’s website highlights the women engineers in its Fellowship, with the aim of encouraging more people, particularly girls and women, to consider and persist in engineering careers.

Analysis by Engineering UK highlights that we will need more than 180,000 new engineers and technicians each year to 2022 to fulfil demand. However, research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) shows that just 9% of engineers in the UK are women – the lowest percentage in Europe, and a figure that has remained static for decades.

There are so many big and small, global and local challenges that engineers need to crack, with not enough engineers available to do so. There are surveys from organisations such as McKinsey & Company, Harvard Business Review and the World Economic Forum that conclude companies and countries with better gender parity have higher earnings before interest and tax per capita. Therefore, attracting more women into engineering is a compelling economic, as well as social, issue.

So why do so few women see engineering as a career for them? I think it is the result of a number of factors: from the careers advice offered at schools, to schools not giving girls the confidence to opt for science and maths A levels.

It is also due to some employers needing to make their approach to recruitment and retention more inclusive. There are skilled women qualified to take up existing roles, but many are leaving the profession as soon as they graduate because the opportunities advertised do not look like ones where women can thrive.

I firmly believe that if more companies published their diversity figures, there would be greater clarity about what kinds of measures are working in attracting more women to the industry. This is one of the recommendations made in the IET’s joint report with the Prospect trade union, Progressing Women in STEM Roles.

Finally, there is a wider image problem for engineering in the UK. Before I became the IET’s first female president in its 145-year history, I was president of Sony Media Cloud Services, based in California. There, I noticed that engineers are understood to be doing things which are making a difference in the world and they have an almost ‘rock star’ status as a result.

To attract a new generation of engineers who can really deliver on the UK’s engineering and technology potential, we must showcase engineering as a career that is creative, diverse and makes a difference in the world.

We need more role models at every level to inspire young women by showing them what engineering and technology could look like for them. The whole of the engineering profession, including men, must pull together to help win this battle. There is no quick or simple fix; instead, we need many small and subtle changes over time.

I can honestly say that working as an engineer is one of the most exciting, fast-moving and challenging places to be at the moment. I want to motivate other women to share my passion and come and join me.

Naomi Climer FREng
President, Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

THE INNOVATION NEEDED IN MATHS EDUCATION

In his March editorial Convincing the social artists ( Ingenia 66), Dr Scott Steedman suggested that in order to plug the engineering skills gap, school maths teaching should be transformed by drawing on the online digital technology that children already use. The reasons for this suggestion are many.

The OECD 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) says Britain has fallen to 26th in its numeracy and literacy rankings; 20% of our 15 year olds are low mathematical performers and only 12% excel, compared with 4% and 55%, respectively, in Shanghai. Possible consequences of the worrying national maths deficit include long-term unemployment and critical skill shortages, notably affecting engineering.

There are reasons to believe that the heart of the problem is underachievement in basic numeracy and logical mathematics in children under 12. Without a suitably well-founded and inspiring educational experience between the ages of seven and 11, far too many 14 to 16 year olds find that they are irreversibly excluded from STEM careers. The situation is not helped by a shortage of maths teachers and the recent 11% short fall in applications for maths teacher training. The government is funding training of numerically minded graduates from other disciplines, but this alone is unlikely to plug the gap.

Tellingly, The Economist recently noted that much teaching has hardly changed since the Middle Ages, yet children increasingly use computers for research, essay writing and social purposes. Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Tim Gowers asked whether mathematics education could better accommodate the needs of the majority of children, perfectly aware they will never reach sunny STEM uplands but nevertheless need to be able to tackle life problems, see through incorrect arguments and make better decisions.

Dr Steedman’s editorial suggested that higher education’s MOOCs (massive open online courses) could act as a pathfinder. Assisted, blended online learning approaches can leave teachers in control, happy regarding their primary role and free for more individual intervention. Unsurprisingly, this seems to be the way maths e-education is going, according to a number of examples I have recently come across. MyMaths’ personalised student attention, feedback and administration seems especially helpful to teachers for whom maths is not their primary subject. Hegartymaths.com’s apps that augment GCSE and A-level maths have been viewed more than 5.5 million times across the world. Teachers grasp and adopt the online game Minecraft quickly, using it to teach subjects such as maths and engineering in more than 10,000 establishments around the world. Cornerstone Maths focuses on cognitive aspects, while Trymaths offers tracking and marking help and Grid Algebra successfully engages pupils who have previously failed. Oxford University Press, Pearson, Kaplan and Apollo also offer enhanced online versions of their textbooks. While cumulatively this is an appetising à la carte menu, some may be put off by the negative correlation between PISA’s findings on mathematic achievement and students’ technology access. However, a recent OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey partly attributes this to not understanding how these resources can be used, with clear evidence that emphasis on cognition improves attainment and motivation.

So what might be done to remedy our rather unhappy national position? Should the proposals in the Joint Mathematical Council of the United Kingdom’s 2011 report, Digital Technologies and Mathematics Education, be realised in the form of a Which-style cost-benefit study of what scalable technology can and can’t do for students, parents and teachers? Since teacher training is essential, should the recent Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education Beginning teaching: Best in class? recommendations be expanded to cover using digital technology and social media? As tablets become ever more affordable and many seven to 11 year olds own one, is there a national case for making them the platform for resilient e-learning? How about building on virtually every nine year old’s keenness to learn and astonishing comfort with digital technology and social media tools? Come on, maths movers and shakers, engineering needs your help!

Dr Ian Nussey OBE FREng
Recently retired from IBM

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