Finding future chemical and process engineers in the primary school classroom

Article by Jo Cox

Jo Cox and Stem Education experts on engaging with children as young as four, how changes to the primary curriculum can help, and what makes a good role model

Do we really need to target children this young?

Simply put, yes. To meet the aims and objectives of IChemE’s Strategy 28+ and put chemical and process engineering at the centre of a sustainable future, there is a growing demand for more young people to enter the profession. Research carried out in 2021 for the Education and Employers careers charity1 found that children as young as five have ingrained stereotypical views about the jobs people do, based on their gender, ethnicity, and social background and that career aspirations are narrow and typically out-of-sync with labour market demands. There is a wealth of analysis supporting this view, including the Aspires research2 from the Institute of Education at University College London. In a study of over 40,000 young people’s science and career aspirations, they found that children’s career choices changed little between the ages of ten and 18.

The new DiscoverChemEng SDG poster for primary schools and an activity from the University of York to clean muddy water based around one of the topics

Do we need to introduce chemical engineering to very young children?

Chemical engineering is a challenging concept for young children to understand but there is little need to get caught up in the technicalities with this age group. Even very young children can understand the principles of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and members can support children to identify problems that need to be solved – access to clean water, abolishing world hunger, safe and effective medicines for all. The new DiscoverChemEng SDG poster3 for the primary school classroom makes an ideal starting point to lead a discussion about the global goals. From there, member volunteers can add in a simple practical activity based around one of the topics, such as a challenge to clean muddy water.4

There is a huge amount of research being undertaken regarding how to embed engineering in the primary curriculum. Any members considering creating activities for this age group or working in primary schools should be aware of this step change – see boxout.

Reimagining the primary school curriculum

Widening access and participation in engineering education has been a focus for the team at the Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub (SEERIH) at the University of Manchester. Since 2015, they have worked in partnership with primary and lower secondary science, and design and technology teachers with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) and Comino Foundation. Their mission has been to identify teaching and learning approaches that enable all pupils to have rich opportunities to learn about, and as, engineers within the mainstream curriculum. This required a reimagining of interdisciplinary learning and an explicit focus on the Engineering Habits of Mind (EHoMs) and Engineering Design Process (EDP).

EHoMs are a unique set of values, skills, and attitudes associated with engineering which support the ability to make informed choices when faced with uncertainty (systems thinking, adapting, problem-finding, creative problem-solving, visualising and improving). Using EHoM, children are encouraged to consider the problem they are trying to solve, ask the right questions, understand the constraints they must work with, find the solution, and build a prototype.

In October 2023, the insights were published on the RAEng “Establishing education in primary settings” web pages.6 Through their work, a new Progression Framework provides teachers with strong reference to how the design and technology National Curriculum objectives can also be invigorated in the process. This framework is relevant to outreach developers as it gives common purpose, language, and expectation when designing activities and events. It also means there are direct links into required learning objectives, therefore supporting and enhancing a whole-school approach.

Don’t leave it all to the teaching staff

To engage very young children with engineering we need to show them its relevance to their own lives and spark their imagination and creativity. This cannot be the sole responsibility of teaching staff who are unlikely to be science specialists in a primary school. This is where IChemE members can play a pivotal role in supporting classroom learning alongside teachers and support staff. Regardless of whether you have your own young children or relatives in this age group, there are many opportunities for member volunteers to help raise the aspirations of the very young (if you’ve not seen the latest ITN Engineering a Sustainable World – Inspiring the next generation5 film, do take a look and get a feel for the impact that the three IChemE volunteers had on the youngsters featured).

But don’t feel you have to go it alone. Organisations like the Centre for Industry Education Collaboration (CIEC) exist to support partnerships between STEM-based companies, chemical engineers, and schools. With a little support from their experts to get the conceptual level of science right for the age of the youngsters and a simple, exciting practical activity to do with them, you’ll be on your way.

What at first appears a daunting endeavour, as it can be far from a chemical engineer’s comfort zone, will become some of the days you look forward to the most!

IChemE volunteers went into a class of ten-year-olds to show them how to be process engineers

Inspiring the young through effective role models

Many people can identify role models who helped them make a decision for (or against) particular career paths. Early role models are often family members but as children grow, they start to look beyond their family and take note of other possible role models. Many organisations recognise the importance of including a broad range of relatable role models in their education outreach. For example, EngineeringUK has collated photographs of engineering and engineers showing a diversity of roles and individuals to support this.7 What is meant by “relatable” is usually someone of the same gender, social, or ethnic background, and relatively young – someone that children can look at and think “they are like me”. However, for many companies, finding a diverse range of engineers can be challenging due to the demographic of their workforce and can lead to additional workload on a few “diverse” individuals within the company. This can exacerbate retention issues for staff.

At NUSTEM, Northumbria University, they have been taking an attribute-based approach to role models. Their research8 has identified a number of attributes, or employability skills, which STEM professionals say help them to be successful in their jobs. These include being a good communicator, collaborative, organised, curious, and able to solve problems. Unsurprisingly, these are also skills that schools would like their pupils to develop. In NUSTEM’s education outreach activities they help children reflect on their own attributes and relate to STEM workers that share those attributes. For example, many children are curious, and so an engineering activity can help them link their natural curiosity to that attribute used by an engineer. This can help them see the engineer as being like them, even if they don’t look the same. For IChemE member volunteers this approach removes the need for overly technical activities, instead focusing on the attributes that allow them to carry out their roles – attributes that can be demonstrated by very simple STEM activities, such as visualising, designing, and building a marble run to get a marble from A to B using the materials in front of them. A number of simple activities will be incorporated into the DiscoverChemEng campaign in the summer of 2024.

Get involved

Would you like to get involved by working with primary school children? Below are opportunities that are currently available from renowned organisations working in the UK primary sector. We will continue to share global opportunities as part of the DiscoverChemEng campaign.

Primary Engineer

Primary Engineer is an educational not-for-profit bringing engineering into classrooms across the UK. They connect engineering and technology professionals with schools so they can provide a real-world link to engineering, helping to break stereotypes and expand pupil understanding of what an engineer is and the opportunities and possibilities within industry. They are always looking for volunteers to support their programmes and competitions, helping to inspire the next generation of engineers – a fantastic opportunity for IChemE members to get involved with.

Their Leaders Award Competition is a national STEM competition open to all pupils aged 3–19 and asks the question, ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’. Pupils are tasked with interviewing an engineer, when they can ask the questions that matter to them and get some insights into the exciting and varied world of engineering. Pupils then identify a problem in the world around them and come up with a creative solution to that problem, with every single idea being graded by professional engineers. Last year, Primary Engineer celebrated a decade of the competition, and in those ten years they have seen over 250,000 pupils, 13,000 teachers, and 3,500 schools take part, working alongside 1,500 engineers who have taken the time to inspire the pupils and act as role models in the industry. If you would like to get involved, you can register here: 

Primary Engineer
Primary Engineer Leader Award winner
Primary Engineer
Award-winners from the ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’ competition

The Centre for Industry Education Collaboration

The Centre for Industry Education Collaboration (CIEC) launched its Children Challenging Industry (CCI) programme in 1996. Thanks to in-depth research, continuous evaluation, and a team of expert primary science practitioners, it has refined the model to ensure the current and potential future needs of both industry and schools are met. The programme partners companies and their volunteer STEM professionals, including chemical engineers, with primary schools in their locality. CCI combines a series of practical, problem-solving science activities that children tackle as part of a “company of science consultants”. They then report back to STEM professionals. Each partner company receives training and significant support and mentoring to plan interactive and effective site visits for this age range. Children (and their teachers) can therefore meet chemical engineers in production areas, the control room, and labs, to learn the wide variety of roles chemical engineers can fill. The programme has high levels of enjoyment and increases the number of children who aspire to be the engineers of the future. You can learn more about the programme and its impact on the CIEC website (

Early Years opportunity for IChemE volunteers

As part of the DiscoverChemEng campaign, we are collaborating with The3Engineers ( and inviting member volunteers to read a story with the very young (four- and five-year-olds). The books, featuring the environmentally aware lead character Scout, provide a suitable introduction for this age group to start exploring the challenges that the planet faces and how engineers can help address them. Volunteers will be provided with books, guidance documents, and activity ideas as we launch this activity from April 2024. If any members are keen to get involved, please get in touch. This activity is suitable for delivery to any English-speaking classroom.

For more information, opportunities, and resources, be sure to bookmark the DiscoverChemEng volunteers page:

Jo Cox is head of young people’s and student engagement at IChemE. She received contributions for this article from Lynne Bianchi, director of SEERIH, University of Manchester, Carol Davenport, associate professor and director, NUSTEM, Scott Dalgleish, head of marketing and communications, Primary Engineer, and Joy Parvin, director of Centre for Industry Education Collaboration, Department of Chemistry, University of York



Article by Jo Cox

Head of young people’s and student engagement, IChemE

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.