We return to one of our favourite topics – the link between numeracy, units of measurement and British engineering success.
Some months ago, our attention was drawn to a news story about the UK recovery being constrained by a lack of engineers and engineering skills.
We suggest that the artificial and unnecessary separation in Britain between the units of measurement used in schools for maths and science and those used at home, on the road and by the media can only make it more difficult to “enthuse tomorrow’s engineers” (as the BBC story puts it).
We have now come across this article, written by a member of Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and published in the blog of the Institution, that touches on this theme:
“In April 1952 the Council of the IEE issued the following in relation to the then metre – kilogram – second (M.K.S.) system which “… should be employed by authors in papers submitted to the Institution and that all students of electrical engineering should become conversant with its use”. In 1960 the General Conference of Weights and Measures recommended that the International System of Units (Système International d’Unités (SI)) should be universally adopted. Since 1974 SI has been the primary system of measurement taught in educational establishments in the UK.
The latest OECD PISA educational test relating to mathematics, science and reading identified the UK as having significant room for improvement and as trailing our European partners such as The Netherlands and Germany. In our own community, much has been made of both the need to attract young people to the engineering profession and to improve the public perception of it.
Returning to the PISA test, what can be learned from high scorers in the Far East as well as our higher scoring European partners? Is there a common thread? It appears there is greater societal acknowledgement in the Far East of the value of nurturing intellectual assets for future prosperity, although I have my doubts as to whether the daily time spent in study by young people in countries such as South Korea will be sustainable in the long run. In addition to other differences, such as teacher training, levels of funding, etc. the one issue that I believe is often overlooked is the signals that societies as a whole give out to their younger students in respect of mathematics and (applied) science. Does Germany, for instance, give out different signals than the UK? I believe it does. Whereas UK society signals the administrative manager and financial services worker as being is some way heroic, it denigrates the Engineer by permitting unprotected use of the title as well as refusing to accept the value of the system of measurement used in the study of both science and engineering. The opposite is true of Germany. There the title of Engineer is revered. As in the Far East, students of all ages are taught a system of measurement in which they have been immersed since birth, reinforcing that it is valued by society as a whole.
Does the manner in which the IET presents itself make a positive contribution to improve the situation the UK? I suggest not, in fact when considering the opening paragraph, it appears to be back pedalling. Recent issues of the Institution’s magazine “E&T” contain an unprofessional hotchpotch of “units” from SI through the antediluvian to the occasionally bizarre. For the professional, making comparisons is impossible without time consuming reference to conversion tables and calculation; for the young person who may be attracted to an engineering career, those other than SI equate to a foreign language and signal that what is taught in schools and colleges isn’t valued by the profession in which they have an interest. Couple that with the way in which the media and government signal which units of measurement are of value to society as a whole leaves the student confused as to why they are taught as they are. They simply become jacks of all trades, masters of none.
In the light of the foregoing I propose that the IET adopts, as has been done by other professional bodies (notably the Institution of Civil Engineers) a policy of positively supporting SI and campaign for its full adoption by all areas of government, the media and society at large. I suggest that through the full implementation of a single coherent system of measurement, for all and by all, one of the barriers to improving the UK’s PISA performance will be removed and a more informed view by the media and society as a whole of science and engineering will be promoted.”
(There are a few acronyms in this article, which may require explanation:
IEE. The Institution of Electrical Engineers – the predecessor of IET, both based in London.
OECD. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, established in 1961 with a current membership of 34 countries and based in Paris.
PISA. Programme for International Student Assessment.)