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IMechE calls for “wholesale change” in promotion of engineering to teenagers

Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education - IMechE

New research urges fresh approach to switch distinct student groups on to engineering.

The promotion of engineering in schools must undergo “wholesale change” to reach out to different student groups, according to a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).

The report ‘Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education’ calls on Government, teachers, industry and Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) organisations to take into account the  diverse values and attitudes of students to try and inspire them about engineering.

“If we are serious about meeting the UK’s engineering skills shortage we can no longer rely on appealing just to the small proportion of people who are passionate about STEM subjects." Peter Finegold, IMechE.

“Whatever we have been doing isn’t working,” said Peter Finegold, IMechE head of education and skills.  

“The UK is struggling with a dramatic shortfall of engineers,” he added. “In 2010 it was calculated that demand to maintain economic growth meant producing 190,000 engineering graduates and technicians every year till 2020. Last year we produced only 51,000, of our 87,000 target for graduates alone, and time is ticking by.”

The IMechE’s new report identifies five distinct student types or “tribes”, based on their values, interests and attitudes to STEM subjects. Government, schools and industry, it says, should act now to develop different approaches to more effectively communicate the value of careers on engineering. 

“Engineering is a hugely creative subject yet our education system too often segregates those it sees as potential engineers from those it deems artists,” said Finegold. “Yet it is clear that if we are to meet this shortfall, we need to think differently about who our audience is.

He added: “If we are serious about meeting the UK’s engineering skills shortage we can no longer rely on appealing just to the small proportion of people who are passionate about STEM subjects. Our research shows that young women for example, tend to have a greater affinity to engineering connected to design, medicine, sports and the environment and this should be reflected in the way STEM subjects are presented to them in school.”

The IMechE report has defined ‘tribes’ of young people in the UK, aged 11–19:

Stem Devotees: enthusiasts who expressed very high levels of enjoyment of STEM subjects, especially mathematics. This group saw STEM-related careers as prestigious, clever and accessible to them.

Social Artists: young people who tended to enjoy STEM subjects less than other students and who were more likely to be positive about art, English language, drama and dance. Their connection with traditionally ‘creative’ subjects may on the surface make them less likely candidates for a future in STEM, but this group comprises many potential engineers if the engineering community were better able to promote its creative side.

Enthused Unfocussed: teenagers with wide-ranging interests, including an acknowledged enjoyment and interest in STEM subjects, but who lack confidence that a STEM career is for them.

Individualists: adolescents who have less interest in engineering as a career and who are more likely to study academic subjects linked to specific vocations, such as law, psychology and business. But as the most entrepreneurial tribe, they would benefit from greater exposure to the opportunities in engineering.

Less Engaged: pupils who broadly lack confidence in their own abilities and had the lowest affinity of any group with engineering.

To read the full report: ‘Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education’.