ENGINEER: It’s not enough for children to look into screens - they must continue to learn science with their hands

Bringing science closer to the population is what Maya Halevy has being doing for the last 30 years. In this Q&A she talks about expanding her image to all of Europe and changing the way we teach

Maya Halevy, Director of Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem

Maya Halevy, Director of Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem, has been at the heart of building an interactive science venue for Israel since 1983.

As coordinator of ENGINEER, an EU funded project, Maya’s aim is to introduce innovative methods of science teaching to Europe.

As background, only 12 per cent of all university and college graduates in Europe major in engineering – a figure that dropped by two per cent since 2000. Here, the project’s coordinator, Maya Halevy, spoke with Science|Business about how ENGINEER attempts to address the shortfall in engineering education in Europe.

Q: What can you tell us about ENGINEER?

A: What we see across Europe is that students’ interest in science falls away after a few years. Why are we seeing this? We thought about this and realised the subject is not seen as relevant enough. The way it’s taught might be the problem. We thought about how we could approach and change it. We focused on some core ideas:

•    Science should be made more relevant 

•    It should include challenges and problems

•    It should include more teamwork

•    It should incorporate learning by doing – students should use their hands.

We offer a new approach to science. ENGINEER was about trying to understand more about how science centres and museums can help to overcome obstacles. We don’t want to stay in the classical boundaries where students only learn about theories of construction and electricity: we wanted to embed science knowledge directly into problem-solving. We took these starting points and developed them into a structured project.

Q: What changes do schools need to make to their curricula then?

A: We feel we have developed a strong tool to introduce engineering into schools. We need to ensure we give children examples to work with. For this project, we created 10 engineering challenges which range from building a glider to making a new home for frogs. We based this approach on a programme developed by Boston‘s Museum of Science (BMOS) and now widely used in primary schools throughout the US. Students follow a five-step design process using engineering principles to solve simple problems. This is a powerful way of engaging young people with science. I would say that three years – the duration of our project - is definitely not enough to change the school curriculum in Europe - colleagues in the US have been doing it for more than 15 years. So we are looking to continuously form partnerships with industry and academia to continue our ambitious goals of spreading engineering for children.

Q: Is there space for more engineering in school curricula – should it get more attention than digital skills like coding, for instance?

A: What we try to show by ENGINEER, it’s not enough for children to look at screens. We need to learn science with our hands. With 3D printing, we see more interesting approaches; people designing things for themselves. We believe in digital processes but practical processes must continue to get attention.

Q: Will it be easy for countries to adapt these new teaching methods?

A: With this new approach to teaching, of course there will be people who may initially not want to work with it. Teachers will say they don’t have time, ministries will say they don’t know how to evaluate it and faculties will say they don’t have tools. However, you don’t need to change anything in a seismic way: just the approach. When you use well-approved inquiry-based approaches, there’s a lot of potential. One of the major strands of ENGINEER is advocacy and trying to persuade local and EU level policy makers in the importance of our mission, which is a big challenge of course.

Q: What challenges are there when adapting a US science programme for use in Europe? 

A: What we took from the US was some big ideas. We wanted to make them relevant for European countries. It was very important for us to ensure we included a wide spectrum of engineering. When you develop a project in 10 different countries, as we have with ENGINEER, you have to be mindful of 10 different cultures. We know Europe is very diverse; sensitivities to different cultures are important.

Q: How were engineering challenges tailored for individual countries?

A: We started by doing surveys of education systems – we looked at teacher backgrounds and the kind of curricula taught in different countries. It all came out of the survey. We looked at 10 different science fields, and started to develop challenges. Each challenge incorporates many different fields. For example, one of our challenges looks at developing a vacuum cleaner. A vacuum cleaner covers mechanical, electrical and air elements. We tested each challenge in two countries. We saw differences in approach and differences in children’s reactions to challenges and materials. We had a variety of different levels of competences.

Q: Besides schools, who else is involved in this project?

A: In each country, we have two partners – the school and the museum working together. Input from different partners brought a lot of know-how to the table – this really helped shape our overall philosophy. Project results will be used in schools and science museums. We see the science museum as a laboratory, where projects can be developed. It’s also a hub of dissemination, a place where we intend to publish our results: our target population is greater when we use museums.

For more on the project, click here.
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