Fish is Fish is a children’s illustrated book written by Leo Lionni and first published in 1970. It is about a small fish and a tadpole who lived together in a small pond, and were inseparable friends. Over several weeks both the small fish and the tadpole grew up into adulthood. The small fish became a big fish, whilst the tadpole slowly grew legs, and lost its tail and became a fully grown-up frog. Soon the now grown-up frog left the pond and started a new life on dry land. The fish also wanted to follow the frog and see and experience the big wide world, but it couldn’t since it did not have the lungs to breathe in air or the legs to walk on dry land.
After a long time, the frog came back to the pond to see his childhood friend, and he eagerly began to tell the fish all about the outside world. He talked about the birds that he had seen, that they had wings, two legs, and many colours. As the fish listened, in his mind he saw the birds that his friend described as large feathered fish that could fly. When the frog talked about cows, the fish could only picture them as large, four-legged fish with horns, and which ate grass and produced milk. It was the same case when the frog described men, women and children – the fish could only see them in his mind as two-legged fish that wore clothes. Everything that the frog talked about, the fish could only see it as some kind of fish. It was as if the fish could not go beyond his “fishness” to see the things described by the frogs for what they were.
This children’s picture book has important lessons for the engineering profession. In simple terms, engineering is divided into at least three stages, namely pre-engineering education – which includes primary and secondary schools, tertiary-level engineering education – which includes further education and university level engineering education, and lastly engineering practice. Currently, these three levels of the engineering profession are largely disconnected. Whilst considerable effort and resources have been made to bring awareness of engineering education to pre-university students, this is still limited. What this means is that pre-university students have little or no opportunity to engage with engineering education, let alone engineering practice. Hence, most pre-university students can only imagine what engineering education or engineering practice is really like. With so little information, it is no wonder that some groups of students, for example women and minority students, feel that engineering is not for them. On the other hand, some of those who opt to study engineering at university have conceptions of engineering education and practice that are quite different from the reality. This situation only leads to widespread disengagement from engineering education programmes, and to high drop-out rates, both during studies and upon graduation.
For the past forty years, industry has been complaining persistently about the perceived lack of work-readiness of engineering graduates. Commonly cited shortcomings include poor communication skills, poor team-working and leadership skills, and a general lack of commercial awareness. Engineering schools have responded by introducing problem and project-based learning which offer more authentic learning, but the complaints from industry have persisted. In fact, studies indicate that despite efforts by universities to provide authentic learning in their programmes, student internships and work experience still remain the most, if not only, reliable predictor for student work-readiness.
So what can we learn from the Fish is Fish picture storybook? First, that pre-university students need to start actively engaging with engineering education and practice well before they go to university. Second, that no amount of explaining can provide foolproof work-readiness for university-level students – the only alternative is early and persistent student engagement with industry thoughout their studies. Perhaps if we do so then the leaky pipeline in engineering education can become less leaky, and the engineering profession can become more inclusive and more diverse.