It is widely believed that we need more engineers and quality engineers are being hallmarked, based on their strong technical skills, experience, and dominant soft skills such as communication, teamwork and life-long learning.

Yet, it is frequently asserted that people have a poor grasp of what engineering is all about. To some, engineering is seen as one of the difficult subjects due to the math and science involved in the learning process. Add to that the vague notions without applicability of the theories learnt, many students lose interest. It is also essential to look at the students’ perspective, especially what holds their interest and what they would like to experiment with so that there is an interest generated.

Early exposure of engineering disciplines provides unique opportunity for high school students to assess engineering as a future career. Rather than sticking to an out-dated supply and demand model, which is not efficient, focus must be instead on embedding the ‘thinking and doing’ skills into young people’s education – nudging more down the engineering track while also enhancing general technological literacy. This will be more efficient if there is more teaching towards applicable theories instead of learning by the rote.

There must also be concerted effort to reach down to high school level where teaching should be approached in an interesting way to increase student interest in engineering subjects. If implemented efficiently, this will encourage high school students to select engineering as their preferred subject at university.

This also settles the questions about what being an engineer is all about: making ‘things’ that work and making ‘things’ work better.

Basic engineering traits include systematic thinking, adapting, creative problem-solving, visualising, improvising, among others. Notably, these traits are apparent in the way primary-age children innately behave. Young children are little engineers. Yet little effort is made to coerce this natural competence. Hence, by secondary school we distance children even more from the world of engineering, encouraging abstraction and more academic pursuits.

To nurture these engineering habits of mind, there is a need to rethink the approach to education. This can be done by relaxing the constraints of existing content-heavy, outcome-oriented curricula that has no specific place for engineering within the curriculum.

The proof of principle has been established to create a platform for transforming young people’s exposure to engineering thinking and needs policy makers to be equally open to new ways of thinking. We need curriculum reforms and better careers advice to exponentially increase application rates for engineering degrees.

Universities should also work with schools and teachers to talk about what engineering is. It is important to start working with schools as early as possible; leaving it to higher secondary school level is actually too late. If you explain to children, for example, that all the equipment in hospitals, where one has an x-ray or any procedure, would have had an engineer involved to develop the machine that has helped during the course of a patient’s treatment, it gives a broader impression early on to children of the wide possibility of this career.

When you view engineering as a narrow domain, the chances are that it is not conveyed in the most exciting way to students either. Some universities offer narrow degrees that inevitably restrict their pool of applicants to a narrow remit. There are many things universities can do to break the stereotype of engineers who are often described as “geeky, good at maths, always have a calculator and drawings in their hands and wear overcoats and helmets etc”. To start with, invite High school children to laboratories to let them experience some of the exciting hands-on experiments for a taste of engineering.