How to make more engineers

There were at least two men named Phidias in ancient Greece – one was a sculptor, painter and architect, and the other was the father of Archimedes the scientist. That’s what I learnt from this video here:

The video is actually about ‘Science Capital’, a concept that describes the sum of exposures a person has to science and scientists – science-related qualifications, understanding and knowledge of science and ‘how it works’, interests and attitude towards science, and social contacts with people in science-related jobs. The video is worth watching for anyone concerned with our current shortage of engineers and scientists and how kids can or cannot be ‘persuaded’ to take up a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The sources of Science Capital
The sources of Science Capital

The higher a student’s Science Capital, the more likely they are to take up STEM subjects. And one of the key messages of the video – particularly for those who are telling us that the Science Centre is in the best position to make Science interesting for kids – is that the sources of Science Capital include school, home and family, out-of-school science learning and everyday experiences. A visit to the Science Centre (part of the out-of-school bit) is just one of many influences, and if we are to have any significant effect, we need to work with the schools, parents and wider society as well, as these will in turn inform the kids’ thinking.

My own experience with this video illustrates another challenge we face with a free-choice learning environment like YouTube or the Science Centre: It is entirely up to the consumers of our content what they want to take away from it. In my case, I picked up on one little illustration in the video that caught my attention – that of Archimedes’ Dad increasing his son’s Science Capital – and dug a bit deeper, learning something new about a couple of ancient Greeks in the process. Similarly, our visitors will have their own discoveries at the Science Centre, but these are likely to be different for every person, and we have little control over what knowledge they take away from their visit.

So we shouldn’t focus too much on delivering a particular message, be it a specific scientific concept or that engineering is a great subject to study. Instead, we should offer our visitors – young and old – a positive experience with science and technology. We want them to walk away with a more positive attitude towards STEM and be more receptive to all the other influences they get – or exert a more positive influence on others – at home and in school.

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