Now more than ever, the spotlight is shining on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries, and the critical role they’ve played in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. From vaccine development, to medical treatment and Track and Trace data systems – none of the essential work that occurs to keep us safe would be possible without these specialised disciplines.
It’s also key for the future of our economy to ensure that these industries, among others, are supported with a strong talent pipeline to support the workforce and give businesses the best chance to grow in the coming years.
Demand outstrips supply
Despite the important role that STEM careers play, data from the last few years has revealed that there are up to 20,000 fewer graduates than are needed entering UK engineering careers. Said to be a positive projection, this shortfall is likely to significantly impact the industry, with businesses running into lengthy recruitment periods and utilising expensive temporary staffing solutions costing up to £1.5 billion per year
Although numerous factors contribute to this shortfall of engineers, schools and educators will play a pivotal role in encouraging students back into STEM and engineering careers. As such, they must endeavour to further develop the ways in which they educate students about not only the science subjects, but also the career opportunities available in STEM industries, inspiring them to follow these paths after school and higher education.
Developing and delivering engaging lessons
For the majority of children, school will be their primary source of education for STEM subjects, where they learn about the subjects themselves in both theoretical and practical ways. As a result, it’s crucial they’re engaged with the subject matter delivered to them in the classroom.
School is primarily where most children will begin both their theoretical and practical education in STEM subjects, and it’s essential that they engage in their lessons to build a strong foundation for their education in years to come.
Research from the Institute of Engineering and Technology revealed that high quality and inspirational teaching is the factor that has the strongest influence on positive attitudes towards science and STEM subjects in children, highlighting the importance of delivering engaging lessons in these formative years.
It’s frequently the hands-on elements of these subjects that children reference as being enjoyable – whether that’s finding out how mechanisms operate or getting to construct things themselves – but as concepts become more complex and theoretical, they’re likely to switch off. Due to this, finding ways to make lessons relevant and relatable in a child’s frame of reference, using real-world examples, is key to keeping them engaged and interested in the topics discussed.
Relevance is key
There’s plenty of evidence that shows students engage more with a topic if it’s taught in a way that reflects things that are relevant to their lives today. For example, in the current climate, this could be looking at reducing global pollution levels, finding solutions to world hunger, or developing methods to reduce plastic waste entering the environment.
“By thinking creatively about topics across the whole curriculum, there’s a real opportunity to teach in a way that’s not only more engaging for students, but that also reflects real-world events”
These sorts of lessons can also be expanded to be cross-curricular and cover a broad range of areas and larger themes. By thinking creatively about topics across the whole curriculum, there’s a real opportunity to teach in a way that’s not only more engaging for students, but that also reflects real-world events.
Over the last five years, statistics suggest that there has been a 10% decline in the interest of 9-10-year-olds in science, which is likely to have a significant impact on the subject these students choose to follow later in their education. However, according to an Institute of Engineering and Technology study, the majority of teachers who participated admitted that much of their own engineering knowledge is from their own personal experiences – a trend that’s also continued with parents outside of the classroom.
As a result of the personal experiences and insights that are drawn on, it’s sometimes rather too easy for dated misconceptions of the industry and gender-specific influence to trickle down to younger students – for example, the notion of STEM subjects being ‘difficult’ or ‘geeky’. This also has a significant impact on the extent to which students see these subjects as being ‘for them’, also known as ‘science capital‘, which directly links to the likelihood of children following the sciences at post-16 level.
Any misconceptions or negative attitudes towards the STEM subjects, even if delivered unintentionally, that are picked up by a child will have a negative impact on their level of science capital, and reduce the chances of them following a STEM career in the future.
Although more subject-focused career education often happens in the later stages of secondary education – at GCSE and A-level – in order to continue to develop a strong STEM talent pipeline, it’s key that this occurs throughout the education lifecycle. Many students drop all STEM subjects once they are no longer compulsory after GCSE, so in order to prevent this, it’s crucial that we, as an industry, challenge perceptions of the subjects in order to develop a stronger, and more gender-balanced, stream of talent.
Businesses should get involved with careers support
Teachers and educators often lack confidence and experience when it comes to career guidance, with many feeling that they are unable to provide sufficient support and advice for those looking to follow STEM careers.
However, to engage students in these industries and raise awareness of the opportunities available, creating interest in these subjects and exploring what it really means to be a modern-day engineer should be at the forefront of careers education from an early age.
Highlighting the diversity of careers available within the STEM industries is also of high importance – a task which is often best suited for those working in STEM careers, due to their first-hand experience of the opportunities available. As employees who know the reality of working in engineering and other science disciplines, industry experts are able to provide deeper insights and communicate how the skills and theory developed in the classroom are put into practice in the workplace.
Raising awareness of STEM
One of the main challenges in STEM education is raising awareness and educating students about the vast range of jobs that are available in the industry. Teachers are specialists in teaching their subjects, but there’s often a lack of understanding from educators and parents about the internal workings of the industry.
As a result, one of the best ways to deliver STEM careers education is to really get businesses involved – as people working in the industry, STEM employees will be able to provide insights into the various jobs available, and highlight jobs that are far removed from the typical assumptions of what a career in STEM looks like.
A great way for businesses to really engage with students is by getting technology and products into the hands of students. Providing hands-on workshops and showing the real-world value of engineering and other science skills can really inspire students, allowing them to visualise the impact that they could make by choosing a career in STEM.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created much uncertainty, we’re still able to lean on the factors we can control to create the best possible circumstances for both our workforce and economy in the future. There is a huge opportunity for us to create real change in the way that the STEM subjects are taught, by thinking of new and innovative ways to deliver engaging lessons and create strong industry links between businesses and education providers, to support and inspire students to follow these subjects into higher education and their careers beyond.
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