• The Inside Line

Engineering the future

Kate Walker May 10, 2014
© Sutton Images

When I was at school, I hated science. As a wannabe journalist, I argued, I had no need for science. I was a writer, not a lab rat.

Because the universe likes to mock people, my first job in journalism was as a science columnist. And as you may have noticed, I currently work in a field where a basic understanding of aerodynamic principles is something of an advantage.

It turns out that what I hated wasn't science, but the way in which it was taught. There was nothing in light and sound waves to hold my interest, and the only cosine I was interested in was the sort that appeared on a chequebook. Science was dry and dull, while history and literature were filled with war, passion, sex, and death. What could be more interesting?

Like many girls, there was nothing in the way science was taught in my school that held my interest, that made me think these were subjects worth pursuing in my own time. Now, twenty years after that first physics lesson, I could kick myself every day.

Classic literature I can read for fun whenever I want to, but missing out on (read: deliberately ignoring) STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the classroom is a real liability. And I am not alone in making that discovery well into adulthood.

Looking specifically at the UK - for those are the figures I have to hand - women comprise a scant seven percent of the engineering workforce. Recent years have seen a sea change in education, with women now graduating university at higher rates than men, and overwhelming the number of male graduates in fields such as medicine and law, but STEM subjects continue to lag behind when it comes to female engagement.

"Britain will need 87,000 new engineers each year for the next decade if it is to remain competitive, and there is a significant shortfall in the current student population."

But interest in STEM subjects has been falling for years, amongst both male and female learners. According to a report by Engineering UK published earlier this year, Britain will need 87,000 new engineers each year for the next decade if it is to remain competitive, and there is a significant shortfall in the current student population.

It's a complex issue, and one with a variety of causes. There's a strong argument for saying that schools focussed on their standings in various league tables tend to steer their students into the softer subjects (humanities), where A grades are perceived as being significantly easier to achieve than in science, maths, and engineering.

There is also the skills shortage to blame, with a not insignificant number of maths and science graduates electing to take their analytical skills into the world of finance, which is where the money is. To circumvent this, it was announced recently that a number of British firms (and British arms of global concerns) will be sponsoring higher salaries for STEM graduates who elect to pursue a teaching career, ensuring that they do not lose out financially by using their skills to foster the next generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.

Of course, we are now living in a truly global society, one in which skills shortages in one country can always be ameliorated by importing talent from others. Specialists find it rather easier to secure visas than the average person, and transnational corporations make brain drain a thing of the past in business terms.

In real terms, however, countries still have a lot to fear from the total loss of talent. Those brains who can be imported - applying their skills to businesses and initiatives in their adoptive homes, while paying taxes into the national kitty - have no set loyalty to their bases, and can and will move elsewhere as better job opportunities present themselves.

Formula One is essential to the creation of future STEM talent, for now. Where in the 1960s it was the aerospace industry that represented the sexy side of STEM, with many of today's engineers getting inspired by NASA and men on the moon, today it is Formula One that sells engineering to impressionable young minds directly in their homes every other Sunday.

But F1's position as the salesman of STEM is not a permanent one, and the sport runs the risk of losing its ability to make engineering desirable. We have been shooting ourselves in the foot with our ongoing failure to publicise our current technical revolution, to promote the ferocious brains who have made this new era possible.

Impressionable young minds should be seduced, for without future generations of highly skilled STEM graduates we will not only lack the people necessary to keep Formula One at the pinnacle of motorsport technology for many years to come, but we will also lose the unsung - but vital - people who apply their STEM knowledge to the field of teaching, fostering generation after generation of technical excellence.