There is a quantifiable skills crisis in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries. As society’s hunger for digitisation grows, the number of people taking up STEM subjects and careers has steadily declined. This means that in the UK there are now more job vacancies in STEM industries than people willing to fill them. In fact, the European Commission estimates that by 2020 there will be 750,000 unfilled vacancies in the tech sector alone across the continent. As the demand for technological solutions grows, countries that fail to plug the skills gap are sure to be left behind, with better resourced nations racing ahead.
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Despite fears that digitisation of industries will have a negative impact on the job market, a recent report by PwC has found that increased automation will actually create jobs in the UK. These new jobs will however require new skill sets and a trained workforce, meaning that if we don’t make efforts to plug the STEM skills gap now, we will see it rapidly expand in the near future.
Fixing STEM starts in the classroom and in primary education specifically. It is of paramount importance that we get children interested in technical subjects as young as possible, taking advantage of their natural desire to play and learn. First and foremost, injecting fun into teaching is the best way to make STEM subjects more appealing to kids, increasing the odds that they continue these subjects in higher education. Play is also how children learn best, so it makes sense to teach STEM subjects in as playful a manner as possible.
Too little too late
A big problem is that many solutions offered to stem the tide do not fix the root issues. Recently the government has offered more attractive visas to international STEM students in the hope of luring in talented individuals. Earlier this month the government also outlined plans to boost spending on education for 16–19-year-olds by £155m, with £55m ringfenced for “high value” subjects including STEM. While any attempt to bridge the skills gap is welcome, to me these ideas feel like they either aren’t going far enough in promoting STEM subjects to talented young people in the UK, or are coming too late in life, meaning interest is often already lost.
While any attempt to bridge the skills gap is welcome, to me these ideas feel like they either aren’t going far enough in promoting STEM.
From 2020, the Department for Education will offer those with degrees in STEM subjects, including chemistry and physics, bonuses of up to £9,000 per year if they work in state schools for four years after their training, hoping to increase the number of technically minded teachers in schools. While in Scotland, the Digital Xtra Fund has been setup to encourage organisations to put on extracurricular activities that promote computing and digital tech. These ideas are along the right lines, but still don’t go far enough in painting STEM subjects in a positive light to young children.
I feel that the most glaringly obvious solution to bridging the skills gap is to make grassroots STEM learning more engaging and exciting.
Making STEM fun and achievable
While there have been changes to the Scottish and English curriculums, with an eye to introducing computing and computational thinking at primary school level, many schools and educators struggle get their students engaged with these subjects. In fact, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that interest in STEM subjects in children aged nine to 12-years-old is on the decline, with ICT/computing falling the furthest.
There are always some students who are naturally interested in STEM, but more needs to be done to inspire those children that might view these subjects as dull or uncreative. Promoting coding from an early age and making lessons an experience, rather than a mere box-ticking exercise, can really help to break these stereotypes. We must inspire children instead of boring them.
This can be done through a number of methods, but I believe making STEM closer to what children do for fun is the best way to get through to them. Using props and games can show them that coding can be playful, which will help to get the message across that STEM subjects are often creative and fun.
There are always some students who are naturally interested in STEM, but more needs to be done to inspire those children that might view these subjects as dull or uncreative.
Challenge-based learning is key to this. Allowing children to solve problems that mean something to them helps to show the fun side of computing and makes lessons more engaging, whether that be using computational skills that makes a robot score goals or replicate their favourite dance moves. Making learning come to life with familiar tasks can really help to inspire children, and once you have pupils thinking like programmers from an early age, encouraging them into STEM careers becomes much easier.
However, for many teachers who are not technically minded this can be a challenge. Therefore, we must look to solutions that work for both teachers and students. This starts with making coding, robotics, and engineering accessible, achievable and fun for both educators and pupils. Giving teachers tools that are simple to use, but that are challenging enough to stimulate their students is key to long term engagement.
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Without these user-friendly solutions, we will see the skills gap widen as more and more jobs demand technical expertise that the country is simply not prepared for. Getting students used to coding and programming at a young age can create enthusiasm and inspire the next generation of STEM workers that this country desperately needs moving forward. Failing to do so will cause irreparable damage and see us fall behind in key industries.