"We believe that the nature of the current curriculum, in effect, ‘pushes’ pupils away from an interest in Electrical & Electronic Engineering towards other sorts of engineering"

Stew Edmondson

Electromagnetism: The Overlooked Force of Nature

Let’s start by recapping about the electromagnetic force.

Electromagnetism is a branch of science involving the study of electromagnetic forces, a type of physical interaction that occurs between electrically charged particles. The electromagnetic force is one of the four known fundamental interactions (commonly called forces) in nature, indeed in the whole universe. All other forces (e.g. friction) are derived from these four fundamental ones. The electromagnetic force is responsible for practically all phenomena encountered in daily life above the nuclear scale, with the exception of gravity. Moreover, it can be shown that the electromagnetic force is far more powerful than gravity (about 1028 times bigger!). However, the electromagnetic force is rather neglected and overlooked – in comparison to chemical (nuclear) and Newtonian (gravitational) forces – in secondary education.

Why does this matter?

Technology is a catalyst for social and economic change in our constantly evolving world. Electronic products have become essential to society and are a fundamental enabler of our modern, connected lifestyle. As recognised by the Government’s recent Industrial Strategy, technological advances will continue to lead to the development of innovative products transforming the way we live and these all depend on Electronics.

However, there is a fundamental problem for the UK. Our participation in and leadership of these technological advances is being limited by a chronic skills shortage in Electronic Engineering. Over a number of years, too few students have been studying Electrical & Electronic Engineering. This in combination with an ageing workforce means that there are insufficient graduate engineers to drive forward innovation and progress.

So what does this have to do with Electromagnetism?

At the UKESF, we have been analysing the reasons why Electrical & Electronic Engineering is a relatively unpopular choice, in comparison to other STEM degree subjects. We have been working with our good friend Steve Watts from Cardiff University on this analysis. Recently, we presented our conclusions at a symposium on engineering education hosted by the Royal Academy.

We found that there is a range of reasons; some are ‘pull’ factors, such as the lack of awareness about the size, impact and diversity of the Electronics Sector in the UK, which has an adverse effect on the perception of Electronics as a viable career. However, is our contention that the most significant reason is to do with the curriculum in secondary schools. We believe that the nature of the current curriculum, in effect, ‘pushes’ pupils away from an interest in Electrical & Electronic Engineering towards other sorts of engineering, especially Mechanical.

How can we make things better?

This ‘push’ is due to the way forces are taught in the secondary school curriculum and how they relate to the different engineering disciplines, specifically, that electromagnetic forces are insufficiently represented in the curriculum of the STEM subjects of Mathematics and Physics. There has been and there remains a greater emphasis on mechanical forces and this leads to a conscious bias towards studying related subjects beyond A-levels.  Therefore, to correct this bias, the electromagnetic force needs to be given equivalent prominence to mechanical forces throughout the STEM curriculum. Now, we know that it won’t be easy to convince the DfE but if we don’t try then the situation isn’t going to improve.

Outside of the curriculum, it is also important to ensure we raise awareness about electromagnetism and ensure it is covered in STEM activities. However, when we looked at The IET’s usually excellent Faraday website we actually found very little specifically about electromagnetic forces. Therefore, we suggested to Holly and the Faraday team some investigations that they could include. We are delighted with the resources that they’ve produced from our ideas (‘Magnet Madness’) and these are now live on website for teachers and others to download. Please promote these resources and help raise awareness among children about Electromagnetism: the overlooked force of nature.

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