Thinking like an engineer: report

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This report, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering, offers fresh insights into the ways engineers think. It goes on to suggest ways in which the education system might be redesigned to develop engineers more effectively. The report also makes suggestions as to how the wider public might become engaged with these issues. Engineers make ‘things’ that work or make ‘things’ work better. But they do this in quite particular ways.

The report identifies six engineering habits of mind (EHoM) which, taken together, describe the ways engineers think and act:

1. Systems thinking

2. Adapting

3. Problem-fnding

4. Creative problem-solving

5. Visualising

6. Improving.

In selecting these six aspects of the engineering mind, the research team found strong consensus among a wider variety of engineers and engineer educators. Thinking like an engineer makes a strong case to suggest that, if the UK wants to produce more engineers, it needs to redesign the education system so that these EHoM become the desired outcomes of engineering education. It also needs to work closely with the teachers of, for example, science, design and technology, mathematics and computing. Young children are little engineers. Yet the primary school system almost extinguishes any opportunities for them to nourish as engineers and the teaching of engineering at secondary school is highly variable. The report identifies those learning methods – problem-based and project-based learning, for example – which when rigorously introduced are highly effective at teaching learners to think like engineers.

Thinking like an engineer makes three broad recommendations:

1. The Royal Academy of Engineering to disseminate its findings to ensure wide engagement in the conversation about how engineering is taught.

2. The engineering teaching and learning community to seize the opportunity of the National Curriculum and the report’s new thinking to bring about a mindset shift in schools and redesign engineering education, especially at Primary level.

3. For employers, politicians and others to engage in a dialogue with schools and colleges about the EHoM they think are most important, suggesting practical ways in which they can help.

Given the continuing concerns about lack of STEM expertise in the UK and the recent publication of Review of Engineering Skills by Professor John Perkins, this report makes a timely addition to the debate with clear suggestions on the kinds of pedagogies which are likely to develop more and better engineers.

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