The Missing Link Between STEM Education and Jobs of the Future

As the U.S. aims to create new jobs requiring highly skilled workers, the next generation of engineers are needed now more than ever


As a boy, I loved taking things apart. Clocks, radios, my mother's kitchen appliances. Luckily for her, I was fairly adept at reassembly. I wanted to discover how things worked, what made them tick (and not just the clocks). But at school, the closest I came to engineering was art lessons and woodworking class.

The way the U.K. teaches engineering is a lot more exciting these days. The curriculum has evolved from making matchbox holders in woodworking to designing circuit boards and electronics. Design and Technology, D&T, was introduced around 20 years ago and takes a holistic approach to learning. Science and math principles are taught through hands-on activities, not through rote learning. Students learn by making things, making mistakes and learning from both. D&T can help shape the next generation of engineers.

While D&T is growing in the U.K., it's all but absent in the U.S. At a time when engineering is in such high demand, D&T should be considered as part of the school day. Science and engineering vacancies are anticipated to grow 70 percent faster than other jobs, but there won't be enough qualified people to fill them. With China trending to overtake the U.S. as the number one economy, ensuring the next generation is equipped with the skills needed to engineer the future is paramount.

Education reform is top on the government's agenda, and nearly everyone has an opinion on how to solve the learning lag. STEM education has become the poster child for education leaders. And while there is a renewed emphasis on math and science, the same cannot be said of their less popular siblings, engineering and technology. Very rarely are all four concepts taught in one lesson.

Many schools follow the 'basics-first' approach where they teach the foundational concepts of a design problem first (like basic math), without actually taking students through the process. How torturous for a curious student to learn about torque, motors and circuits without getting the chance to even unhinge a bolt.

Some believe iPads and laptops are the key to reigniting U.S. education, but these are simply new tools in an old system. Computer learning may help engage children, but it remains an extension of the traditional system of read and repeat.

I am one of those students who would have benefitted from D&T instruction, which bridges the gap between learning and doing. Fueling creativity and imagination, D&T pulls young people out of their every day and inspires them. The curriculum involves the entire design process, from ideation to construction.

It also enables students to develop practical skills, as well as an understanding of product aesthetics, environmental issues and industrial practices. Often D&T is a child's only exposure to the world of engineering and design and, for many, their favorite subject.

My education foundation -- active in the U.K. since 2002, and recently arrived stateside in Chicago -- developed an engineering education box as part of the D&T curriculum. This year, a school in the U.K. used the box in its 6th grade class, culminating with the students' Science Fair projects. By taking something apart -- as I used to all those years ago -- the students learned about the design process, from materials to manufacturing to testing. From it, they identified a product they would like to redesign to make it better (one student had an idea for a silent blender).

The curriculum was a success. Students were completely engaged as they disassembled a Dyson machine and put it back together -- even hesitant to leave when the bell rang. It's not often teachers face an audience of students eager to learn more. In March, the Foundation ran its first workshop in the U.S. Creativity and problem solving were tested in a rapid design challenge where they brainstormed, sketched and 3-D modeled their designs in less than an hour. The ideas could rival the engineers of today, from a bicycle commuter train to a solar powered charger.

Real life and potential future jobs require the skills D&T teaches: problem solving, making mistakes and learning from them. The U.S. aims to have 123 million jobs requiring highly skilled workers. With only 50 million Americans qualified to fill them, the next generation of engineers are needed now more than ever. Hands-on learning does more than just encourage a child's natural creativity: it and can fuel the future of invention.

Image: James Dyson Foundation.