Equality Through Innovation is a blog series profiling innovators working in Glasgow and the West of Scotland to tackle inequalities in unique ways. In our second blog, we meet Lise McCaffery, who is inspiring the next generation of engineers.
Education is in Lise McCaffery’s blood.
Originally from Northern Ireland, she was a student at the first Integrated Catholic and Protestant school – set up by her parents during the Troubles.
She was one of 19 pupils at the school, hosted in a co-op building, which her parents ran outside of their day jobs. She always wanted to be a teacher.
After working as Head of Curriculum at Explore Learning, she returned to university to study her Masters, with a focus on STEM, before joining Primary Engineer in 2016 as Scotland’s regional director.
Lise is the organisation’s sole staff member in Scotland, where she is hosted in Scottish Engineering’s Glasgow headquarters.
She describes her job as super fun.
“One day you could be presenting at the Royal Academy of Engineering, the next day you’re crawling around on the floor of a classroom with a glue gun stuck to your hair. Then maybe you’re training teachers that evening.”
Primary Engineer was started in 2005 by now CEO Susan Scurlock. Lise says Susan couldn’t wait to be an engineer like her dad, until he told her ‘girls can’t be engineers’. It stuck with her.
“That proverbial bee in her bonnet has positively impacted hundreds of thousands of kids across the UK,” Lise says.
Primary Engineer is a not-for-profit funded and supported by a variety of councils, companies, professional organisations and government.
In Glasgow, Allied Vehicles has been instrumental in supporting Primary Engineer’s work, alongside Glasgow City Council, the University of Strathclyde and City of Glasgow College.
They have funded teacher training and pupil engineering projects for the past five years in some of the most socio-economically challenged areas of the city.
Primary Engineer aims to bridge the gap between education and industry, inspiring young people to consider careers in engineering.
The UK has some of the worst statistics for diversity in engineering. An incredible 94 per cent of engineers are white and 91 per cent are men.
Attempts to fix this have been too late and too little. Lise says the UK has had 30 years of intervention to try and turn the figures around.
“It hasn’t really been working, so what cultural change really needs to happen?
“We need to target young people, teachers and families earlier in the system to help them understand what engineering jobs look like. And that’s exactly what we do.”
Lise is passionate about social mobility and understanding the different barriers people face.
“It’s about making teachers aware that it’s not a case of treating people equally, because not everyone is starting on equal footing.”
One of Primary Engineer’s most successful programmes is the Leader’s Award, (known as the Scottish Engineering Leaders Award in Scotland) a competition which asks children, ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’
In Scotland alone, the number of pupils who enter has grown from 8,500 in 2016 up to 15,000 this year, a growth trend the competition exhibits across the UK.
University of Strathclyde students develop prototypes of the winning ideas, which have previously included a rotating park bench and shopping trolley for the elderly, the latter on display at the Glasgow Science Centre.
In 2019, alongside the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian University will be developing prototypes and the University of Glasgow will take part in 2020.
The Leaders Award provides a level playing field for all pupils.
“You don’t have to be academic, pupils are just required to have an idea and then communicate it through annotated drawings and a letter to engineers explaining why it should be built,” Lise says. “And anyone can have a good idea.”
She recalls feedback from a teacher who saw a noticeable change in one girl’s confidence and behaviour in the classroom after her idea was shortlisted in the competition.
“That’s exactly why we do it,” Lise says. “You know there’s lots of little kids like that, having that experience, when they receive a certificate from us saying they have been shortlisted or have a distinction.”
Part of what inspires the students is knowing an engineer has read their idea.
“With the expected growth of the programme that is a challenge for us to find enough engineers but we are up for it,” Lise says.
What sets Primary Engineer apart is its multi-layered approach.
Over the past 12 years the organisation has created an engineering curriculum that spans early years, primary, secondary and further education institutions, linked throughout to industry.
It offers a wide range of CPD courses for teachers and practitioners, including a postgraduate certificate in STEM learning, accredited by the University of Strathclyde and a GTCS Professional Recognition programme.
Lise says because the vast majority of primary school teachers don’t have a science degree, there has been an emphasis on encouraging people with STEM backgrounds to take up teaching.
“But in reality, teachers have the skills to transfer knowledge so those without a science background benefit hugely from the opportunities to include STEM within their repertoire of classroom skills.”
Primary Engineer has developed its own teacher-led research which forms the evidence base of all the organisation’s work.
The next step is to continue to increase engagement, in Glasgow and beyond.
“We want every school in Scotland to be a Primary Engineer school,” Lise says.
“We’d like to see it become the foundation of engineering education across Scotland, the wider UK and after that, well, world domination beckons!”