School science and maths classes must be used to demystify engineering so that enough students go on to study the field and satisfy industry demand. That’s what Professor John Beynon, the University of Adelaide’s new engineering school chief, believes.
Prof Beynon said a key to solving the skills shortage was to find ways to inspire children to take up the profession. Latest figures reveal that more than 50 per cent of the engineering labour force was born overseas. Between 13,000 and 20,000 engineers are needed each year but universities only produce about 9000 graduates.
The Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences executive dean said the school curriculum needed to explain how commonly used technology works, such as how a camera phone takes a photo.
“It’s a discipline that students don’t take at school,” Prof Beynon said. He said when subjects were studied at school, students understood that continuing that study at university was a natural progression. But with science, “to some extent they are taking a punt on something they really don’t know a great deal about”.
“People tend to think of the teaching of science in terms of the natural world, discovery and explanation, but I think we can do a lot more to explain how things work. Of course, engineering is about creating things not merely the discovery of what’s already there.”
This year, the university has more than 2400 students enrolled in engineering – up from 1530 five years ago. But Prof Beynon said the numbers needed to rise, especially for females.
“These figures for female students in engineering – consistently 16 to 17 per cent – across the past five years show how important it is to interest children, and particularly girls, in engineering and technology at school,” he said.
An Engineers Australia report released last week showed the increases in the number of Australian-trained engineers graduating each year was not enough to solve engineering skills shortages, which led to serious delays in engineering and infrastructure projects.