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OPINION

Inspiring the engineers of the future

Lynne Bianchi

Lynne Bianchi illustration

Dr Lynne Bianchi is a passionate national voice in science and engineering education in schools – her Tinker Tailor Robot Pi project was recently hailed as an exemplar in a national report for the Royal Academy of Engineering. Here, she explains how her work with Dr Jon Chippindall at the University’s Science and Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub is providing a launch pad for the engineers of the future.

What do engineers do? How do they think? How are they different from scientists? These questions and many more like them have been at the heart of a pioneering learning programme led by the University.

Our concept, which we call ‘Tinkering for Learning’, offers a novel approach to the national curriculum in primary and secondary schools. ‘Tinkering’ – meaning to fix, design, make, prototype, test and redesign – is a word that has unlocked engineering for us and sparked interest and enthusiasm from pupils, parents, teachers, senior leaders and even school governors.

Tinkering has therefore become our secret to getting teachers and young people engaged and thinking as engineers; our Trojan horse to introduce engineering into a jam-packed school curriculum. Using this technique, we saw the light turn on for so many teachers who found that the approach revitalised their passion for teaching science, design technology and computer science.

That’s not to say we’re shying away from engineering as a discipline. Instead, we’re providing a route that is accessible and breaks through the stereotypical and misguided perspectives that engineering might still hold – e.g. “It’s a dirty endeavour!”, “It’s not for girls!” or, “It’s all about mechanical work!”. The tinkering approach broke through these misconceptions, allowing those in the classroom to really explore the diversity of this exciting subject, from fashion engineering to using Crumbles, which are easy-to-use programmable controllers suitable for primary aged pupils to learn programming through engaging and practical projects.

Interestingly, this playful experimentation, learning from failure and engaging with professional engineers in the classroom, has raised the achievement and aspirations of students of all abilities and across the whole curriculum. Teachers have reported improvements in children’s attitude, behaviour and engagement and the approach was even noted by Ofsted in one of our local schools.

‘Tinkering for Learning’ is still a prototype and our Tinker Tailor Robot Pi project continues apace, with teachers gathering to share and develop good practice, supported by our team and extended partners in the engineering education sector.

The aim is to share professional learning across primary and secondary schools so that the nuances of tinkering and its power to impact on pupils’ learning can be fully explored. For example, the project team forged links with key projects, such as the University’s Professor Danielle George’s very successful Robot Orchestra.

We see tinkering as a means by which engineering can take flight for the youngest age groups. As our research continues, we welcome interest from engineers within and beyond the University who may be interested in sharing their perspectives on our work.

Dr Lynne Bianchi, Director of the Science and Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub

For more information contact lynne.bianchi@manchester.ac.uk or visit www.fascinate.manchester.ac.uk

You can read the 'Learning to be an Engineer' report at www.raeng.org.uk/ltbae