Perceptions matter: How small things at a young age can make a big difference

The chart below was posted last week as part of an NPR article by Steve Henn on gender balance among coders and computer scientists. This is one of the starkest charts I’ve seen on a gender-related STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) issue. What’s particularly jaw-dropping is that you can almost pinpoint the moment it happened and the technology that caused this profound change.

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The article also highlights the distorting role of unconscious biases, and the way in which parents can unintentionally fix children on set pathways from which it is very hard to deviate as they get older.  This was discussed recently in a great BBC Horizon programme entitled Is Your Brain Male or Female?  One part of this programme focused on the ‘pink-blue’ toy debate, and showed how parents and carers unconsciously encourage children to play with ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toys. The programme interestingly also explored whether this is entirely a nurture rather than a nature thing by getting monkeys to choose which type toys they preferred – watch the programme to see the surprising results.

Steve Henn’s article is yet other illustration of the importance of getting the message about STEM right at the earliest ages, how easy it is to unintentionally distort the message, and the impact that can result from not making the message clear.  This has been recognised for a long time, but clearly we need to ensure that clear, accurate, unbiased information about what STEM is (and isn’t) is widely disseminated.  It is therefore great to see a new attempt being made to help define one part of STEM – the role of engineers and engineering –  in a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering. But there’s a way to go before we overcome some of our deep-seated biases, such as those beautifully summed up in this video.

The upside of discontent: Why complaining about engineering can be good

Slide1I’d been stuck in near-stationary traffic for over an hour. But that was OK; it was the peak of the summer holidays, and I had mentally prepared myself for this. What was definitely not OK was the fact that my SatNav was telling me ‘No traffic reported ahead‘.  How could this stupid machine not know that there was a mile of cars going nowhere ahead of me? What is the point of ‘real time’ updates that are wrong? Why had I wasted good money on this ridiculous piece of junk?

Once I’d finished ranting about this to my supremely uninterested family, I realised I had neatly illustrated one of the most common challenges engineers face. A few years ago, GPS technology was the stuff of James Bond. The idea that anyone could buy a small, relatively cheap device that could pinpoint your near real-time location to within a few metres while travelling at speed would have been laughable. But GPS, in common with so many extraordinary engineering developments, has rapidly moved from the extraordinary to the everyday. There is initial sense of wonder (‘Wow, that’s amazing! It knows exactly where the turning is!’), which quickly decays as the technology is absorbed into the everyday (‘Keys, wallet, phone, SatNav, OK, we can go now’) to end up as something you only notice when it fails to perform perfectly (as illustrated at the start of this post).

Humans seem to have an extraordinary ability to push amazing technological leaps forward into the background of our lives very quickly.  We don’t seem to have the ability to remain in awe of our achievements for very long (and this is rather graphically summed up by comedian Louis C.K. in this video).  This is not a new thing. Roman’s moaned about their roads; Victorian’s quickly learned to whinge about the railways (and the fares). Marcel Proust commented about how rapidly the telephone went from being: “[..] a supernatural instrument before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or order an ice-cream.” And look how quickly space travel went from jaw-droppingly amazing, whose launches and missions were frequently broadcast globally on TV in the 1960s to something only to be of widespread interest when there was a problem.  We seem to be able to continuously appreciate great art and music, so why can’t we be as appreciative of technological achievements?

But is this inability to be continuously impressed by technological achievements a bad thing? Much of human progress is driven by people being dissatisfied with how things are. Engineers and entrepreneurs thrive on this dissatisfaction to find ways to improve things. What would have happened if Karl Benz had thought that steam trains and horse-drawn carriages were adequate for our transport needs? What if Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison had been sufficiently impressed by gas lighting not to bother with developing the incandescent light bulb? Think of how contemporary engineers and entrepreneurs such as James Dyson, Mandy Haberman and Jonathan Ive have looked at current technology, and pushed things forward to deliver to us something much better (be it vacuum cleaners and hand driers, a child’s drinking cup, or consumer electronics and computers).

Maybe if we were constantly impressed by everything we had, there would be less incentive for engineers to strive to improve things. So perhaps next time you are ranting about slow video download speeds on your smartphone as you hurtle across the country by train, moaning about your flight to the other side of the world being a few minutes late, or giving the SatNav a hard time for not being perfect, you might reflect that you may be doing exactly what is needed to encourage engineers to keep pushing the boundaries of technology to make things better.IMGP8843

Do we really need more engineers?


Last week, James Dyson wrote an article in The Guardian highlighting the UK’s shortfall of engineers and the impact this is having on his business. This article made some really important points, but also triggered a whole series of questions including:

  1. How many engineers is ‘enough’ for an economy?
  2. Do we know how many engineers we have now?
  3. What type of engineers do we need?
  4. Is the shortage of engineers just a UK issue?

James Dyson’s article also highlighted a particular issue that resonated with me: “[..] That’s why my foundation works with young people from primary school age to dispel the myths and help them discover what a career in engineering is like.

This seems to be one of the core underlying issues: If young children don’t have a sense of what engineers do, then trying to encourage them to consider engineering as a career and choose the right subjects to study is going to be really difficult. Great work is being done by a wide range of organisations to help improve understanding of what engineering is. There has also recently been increased presence in the media of engineering-related issues (for example, Mark Miodownik’s TV series on ‘Everyday Miracles’).  But there is still a lot more to do. The pictures shown at the top of this post I think are symbolic of the problem. They were drawn by 9-10 year olds at a Cambridgeshire primary school in response to the request to ‘draw a picture of an engineer doing engineering work’.  I got 40+ excellent pictures of almost exclusively men, repairing and maintaining cars, trains, and boilers. Hardly any of the pictures showed anything to do with constructing, developing, or innovating. This points to the narrow view that these children had of what engineering is about (as discussed in this video).  And if that is the basis on which we are developing of workforce of the future, that would seem to be quite a major concern for the UK.

The next few posts on this blog will be exploring the four questions posed above. If you have views on these or related issues, please add your comments below.


“It’s not science fiction; it’s just engineering” – resources from Tim Minshall’s talk at the Cambridge Science Festival 22nd March 2014


The slides from the talk are available by clicking here, and some of the recommended links and videos are below:

4OD programme on life on the International Space Station (ISS) and NASA’s resources on the ISS.

Amazon Prime Air – video of drone delivery service idea from Amazon.

Building an Airbus A380 in 7 minutes.

Cambridge University Eco Racing – a 60 strong student organisation that designs, build and races solar powered vehicles.

Source: Makerbot

I want to study engineering” – resources to help you get a place at a top university to study engineering.

Khan Academy – one of the most well-known examples of web enabled learning for everyone.

MakerBot – desktop 3D printing.

MakerBot RoboHand – the story behind the making of RoboHand.

Mavrx – the company that Max Bruner started that uses drones to access data to help farmers.

Stratasys – from ideas to prototypes to products.

And if you’d like to see more videos about engineering, please visit our YouTube channel or visit Cambridge University Engineering Department’s YouTube channel.

Engineers don't just fix things: They make things better. They make the future.

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