Engineering the future

Engineering has never been regarded as a subject applicable for prep school age children but, as Nigel Helliwell, Headmaster of St Faith's in Cambridge explains, the benefits for pupils are enormous.

Image Description

These days, it is rare for a Minister at the Department of Education to make a speech without referring to the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). According to the CBI, over the next five years the engineering, science and high-tech sectors expect a 90% increase in employer demand. Engineering alone accounts for around one fifth of the UK workforce at a current level of 5.7m jobs. Engineering UK estimates that this country needs to produce 180,000 engineers per year, but currently there is a shortfall of 70,000 per year. For years, employers have been asking schools to do more to develop young people with creative and flexible minds who can innovate, 'think outside the box', work well in project teams and be the future STEM leaders.

The good news is that since a change to the National Curriculum, computing as a creative, problem-solving subject is becoming established in all schools. Word processing and spreadsheet activities have been replaced by coding and robotics and, consequently, pupils are becoming creators rather than consumers of technology. Three years ago, one of the pupils at my school, aged 12, wrote an app which uses a GPS system to locate and then provide information on the blue plaque listed buildings in Cambridge. This app was launched by the Cambridge Blue Plaque Society and is currently being used by many of the thousands of tourists who visit the city each week. This is just one example of how young children, when given the freedom to be creative, can harness the positive power of technology.

With this approach in mind, in 2015, St Faith's became the first (and still only) school to introduce engineering to the core curriculum for all pupils aged seven and upwards. The engineering curriculum was designed in accordance with the Royal Academy of Engineering guidelines and, in the spirit of typical engineering activity, adopts a project-based, problem-solving, team-work approach. Over the past three years, the curriculum has been refined through the benefit of experience and along the way we have consulted with supportive local individual engineering leaders, members of the Cambridge University Engineering Department and representatives of various professional bodies.

The engineering activities undertaken by the pupils link directly with topics in science, maths and computing – and even with subjects such as art and music. The projects have real-world practical relevance and are designed to engage them in an 'engineering way of thinking'. Pupils are asked to identify the problem, consider how they can design a solution, work as a team to build it, test the product and evaluate what worked (and what didn't) in order to refine their ideas.

"The engineering activities undertaken by the pupils link directly with topics in science, maths and computing – and even with subjects such as art and music."

To give you one example, Year 8 children find themselves marooned on a theoretical desert island. Their first task is to build a shelter to fit four people, using only newspaper and masking tape. Subsequent challenges include building a full-scale da Vinci bridge to support the weight of individuals crossing it; designing and building motorised paddle boats; and subsequently converting these boats into land-worthy cars. In all cases, the premise being to engineer ways to survive and subsequently escape.

The response from our pupils and parents to the introduction of engineering as part of the curriculum has been overwhelmingly positive and it has become one of the most popular subjects in the school. People can see how relevant engineering is to the modern world and why therefore it fits neatly into a future-focussed curriculum. Just as importantly, engineering has the ability to develop key life skills. Teamwork, problem-solving, resilience (as pupils will often fail) and rigour, are just a few of the generic attributes required to succeed as an engineer. These are also the skills young people need in order to be able to lead happy and successful lives after they leave school.

For many, the beauty of engineering is in its practical nature. Every child seems to enjoy making and firing rockets, building bridges and constructing stunt kites. It appeals to those children who might not be academically strong but are good problem-solvers and work well with others. Crucially, though, engineering is academic. The academic aspect of the subject is a key feature. Every project has theory behind it and supports what the pupils have been studying in science, maths or computing lessons.

"For many, the beauty of engineering is in its practical nature. Every child seems to enjoy making and firing rockets, building bridges and constructing stunt kites."

For example, pupils don't simply make and fire rockets, they learn Newton's Third Law and how to calculate centre of mass and centre of pressure for flight stability. Engineering therefore strengthens a school's academic provision; we have seen significant improvements in the children's understanding of science, maths and computing since its introduction. Last and certainly not least, pupils have found engineering to be interactive and great fun. I have yet to find a pupil who isn't inspired or enthused by their latest project. There is a real sense of awe and wonder during many lessons.

Our Engineering Department is located within our recently completed Hub, which links our science, engineering, maths, art and design and computing departments via a big indoor space designed specifically to encourage large-scale cross-curricular activities. The co-existence of these academic departments in one single space has been planned specifically to promote further the cross-pollination of ideas and skills – and to sow the seeds of the 'engineering way of thinking' in young minds. It is not uncommon to enter the Hub and find a homemade hot air balloon being tested or model rockets being launched. We are fortunate to have these facilities but let's be clear – engineering can be taught effectively in most classrooms or Design Technology facilities. There is therefore no barrier for other schools to adapt what we have developed for their own pupils.

It's been just over three years since we launched our engineering curriculum and already our pupils are reaping the rewards. In a recent survey of our Year 8 pupils, more chose engineering than any other area when asked on which topic they would like career advice. Our pupils genuinely appear to enjoy their engineering experiences, while the practical application of concepts and methods is seen to significantly enhance their understanding of science, mathematics and computing.

We have received much interest about our engineering curriculum from schools in the UK and abroad. Dozens of schools have visited to see our engineering lessons in action and to ask questions. 2018 was the UK Year of the Engineer, and I believe there is no better time for schools to explore the introduction of engineering as a curriculum subject.

Nigel Helliwell Photo

Nigel Helliwell is the Headmaster of St Faith’s School, Cambridge.

Related articles


Demystifying finance in the classroom

5 min read Financial illiteracy is a problem for many adults. Ensuring pupils leave school confident in managing a budget, investments and pensions is crucial for the years ahead as Fionnuala Kennedy, Head of Wimbledon High School GDST, explains.


The reform of assessment

5 min read HMC asked 800 educators for their views on both the current curriculum and models of assessment. Dr Simon Hyde, General Secretary of HMC, looks at the findings of this survey and why the majority of respondents want to see reform happen urgently.


Rethinking Latin

5 min read It's time to stop seeing Latin as a 'dead language', argues Dominic Hodgkinson, Head of Classics at Dauntsey’s School, and instead see it as a humanity that can enhance our understanding of the world today.