Playing with a purpose
Three primary school teachers who have recently completed a GTCS Professional Recognition programme with Primary Engineer share benefits of introducing engineering at an early age
The gender bias in engineering is well recognised, with stereotypes of men in hard hats remaining the prevailing image representing the profession. Sometimes misconceived as a “dull” career choice, it’s not likely to be one that many young people immediately aspire to.
Moreover, recent research from King’s College London, the Aspires project, found that by the age of 10, most children have already decided what they aspire to do; they do not aspire to STEM careers and this is very fixed and difficult to change.
By the age of 10 most children have already decided what they aspire to do, and they do not aspire to STEM careers
There is growing awareness that this gender bias needs to be tackled early. The professional learning programme from Primary Engineer, which is seeing a growing number of teachers enrol, is one way Scotland is tackling this.
Recent course graduate Maria Docherty, who teaches at Oakgrove Primary in Maryhill, said: “The Aspires research was staggering for me. By the age of 10, I would never have imagined that children are firmly set against pursuing a career in science or engineering. This really did sharpen my focus that in primary school we have the opportunity to do something.”
Developing career paths and tackling gender stereotypes
At the start of the one-year programme, during their summer holidays, teachers ventured out into the industry to interview as many engineers as they could.
They asked engineers what made them choose their career, who had influenced them, and if they had been discouraged in any way.
You're showing them how to create and build and that's taking a lot of language away and giving a practical explanation
Lisa Sweeney, a teacher at Saint Paul’s (Whiteinch) Primary RC School, said: “Because I’d gone straight from school into teaching, I’d missed working in an industry. I really enjoyed meeting engineers and found it to be one of the most beneficial aspects of the course. When I spoke to the majority of the engineers, they said that education had nothing to do with them going on to choose a career in STEM. It was either parents or another family member, or careers advisers who had influenced them.”
An important aspect of the Primary Engineer programme is bringing real people working in engineering into close contact with school pupils.
Gemma Rutherford, Principal Teacher at St Clare’s Primary School in Drumchapel said: “Primary Engineer paired me up with a mechanical engineer, and he would come out at various stages and work with the pupils, but also with me. He gave a human face to engineering and the children really warmed to him and asked him lots of questions.
“I was very interested in motivating girls and trying to break stereotypes. So I looked at all the skills that engineers have, for example design and team work, and tried to show the girls that there are lots of different sides to engineering and it can be a really interesting career.”
The whole idea behind Primary Engineer is that if the teacher has a level of confidence and is able to talk about engineering it opens it up to everybody – girls and boys from all economic backgrounds. All the teachers were able to link their work on the Primary Engineer programme with their whole-school approach to the world of work.
Supporting pupil engagement and attainment
The biggest piece of work for the teachers was carrying out a practitioner research project.
Lisa chose to focus her research on exploring the link between involving children in the world of STEM and career path.
Lisa’s school is in an area of high deprivation where many pupils don’t speak English as their first language. Lisa found that STEM pedagogy helped to break barriers down.
“You’re showing them how to create and build and that’s taking a lot of the language away and giving a practical explanation,” explained Lisa.
Gemma said that during the course they had learnt about “engineering habits of mind”. Gemma said: “Research suggests that there are six habits of mind that are prevalent in engineers. One of the ones that grabbed my attention was creative problem solving.”
Gemma chose to focus her research on this area: “I felt that it would be really good for the children in my class. Traditionally, problem solving had been taught as a discreet subject within maths – a lesson that was done on its own once a week. I could see that pupils had been totally turned off problem solving and believed that they couldn’t do it.”
The approach taken was very hands on. For example, in one task the children were asked to create something from newspaper and Sellotape that would keep a drink out of the sand. “In terms of motivation, children didn’t view what they were doing as work because it was practical and fun. They didn’t see it as problem solving either, but there was real learning going on,” said Gemma
Building skills in creative problem solving
Similarly, Maria Docherty chose to develop tinkering as part of her professional research and evaluate whether that would develop creative problem solving skills.
Maria said: “I found that children didn’t have enough opportunity to develop as problem solvers. When I interviewed engineers, many said they had developed a creative problem solving habit of mind from their own personal experience, perhaps growing up with a grandad and a shed. All of the female engineers I spoke to, who came from a variety of academic and vocational backgrounds, identified themselves as highly creative and recognised this as a significant strength in their accomplishments as engineers.
They didn't view this as work because it was practical and fun
“The word tinkering came up in conversations; the idea of playing – but playing with a purpose.” At the beginning of the research Maria carried out a baseline study with her Primary 1 class in which she asked all of the children to make a bridge out of only tinfoil. The bridge should be strong enough to hold the weight of a toy car and high enough for the car to go under it.
“During the baseline, you don’t give the children any input at all,” explained Maria. “I found that the majority of the class were unable to move forward in the task – they immediately shut down because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. I realised that very, very young children would have just grabbed the tinfoil and started messing about with it. But now we had children who had been at school for only a few months and already seemed unwilling to pick up a material and tinker with it.”
The baseline gave Maria a very strong set of results that she could use for comparison at the end of the project, after implementing a tinkering pedagogy with the pupils for several months. “The final task was similar but the difference between the two was very powerful. In the final task the whole class was very confident and using the material in a way that was moving the problem forward.”
Maria explained that what she was trying to do was to help very young children understand that creativity is strongly linked to engineering. This was not just about telling them that, but allowing them to experience it. “It’s about trying to create that grandfather-shed scenario in your class. It’s hands-on, with you as the fellow tinkerer.”
Maria explained that, as a teacher, you can feel like you have to have all the answers and know the solution to a problem before you give it out. But Maria encouraged others to take that fear out of the equation.
Likewise, Gemma commented: “It really took me out of my comfort zone because I had to change the way that I was teaching. I had to step back and allow the children to undertake the activities themselves. Even when I could see them making mistakes, I couldn’t intervene.
I found that very difficult because as a teacher you want to get the children on the right path and help them. But the children have to see what works and what doesn’t work and if they can see something that doesn’t work, be able to work out what’s wrong with it and why, and come up with ways to fix it. That’s what engineers have to do. That was challenging for myself but very rewarding in the end because the children’s levels of confidence and independence increased and they were far more able to discuss and explain problem solving.
About Primary Engineer
Primary Engineer is a not-for-profit organisation promoting STEM skills and careers, founded in 2005 by Dr Susan Scurlock. The development of the GTCS Professional Recognition course came from a recommendation in the Scottish Government's Engineering Skills Investment Plan: For Scotland's engineering and advanced manufacturing sector. Three years of funding was provided by Skills Development Scotland to Primary Engineer to design, develop and deliver a programme of professional development for educators to become STEM leaders within their setting. The course is delivered by Lise McCaffery, Regional Director, and runs April to April.
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