Supporting STEM

Coorous Mohtadi explains why we need to change how we support the future STEM stars of tomorrow

Respondents in the 2014 IET Skills Survey highlighted the lack of practical skills as the primary reason STEM graduates do not meet the needs of recruiting organisations.  One of the first proposals from the Universities minister, Jo Johnson, aims to address this through the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which ensures a renewed focus on teaching in Universities.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects have been identified as one of the engines that will drive future economic growth across the UK. Many of the societal grand challenges in the 21st century such as sustainability, management of resources of the planet, harnessing renewable energy can only be addressed through the focused effort of many STEM related researchers, designers and engineers from across many disciplines.

In a society where the Internet of Things is gradually becoming a reality, where data is one of the most precious commodities and where borders of any kind are no longer barriers, skills and competencies such as computational thinking, the ability to make sense of huge volumes of data and devising novel and creative solutions play a huge role. The educational system must create an environment where these skills are promoted and emphasised. When society and its challenges change, education needs to respond to effectively prepare the next generation. 

However, across STEM  subjects this drive to improve the quality of teaching should not be led solely by the government. It is also the responsibility of businesses and educators to play a leading role to ensure what is taught in STEM subjects at university matches the demands and expectations from future employers. Technology can help facilitate this transformation and needs to be an integral part. Whereas in the past the focus was on analytical skills with pencil and paper, now graduates need computational skills for data analysis, capture, curation, search, sharing, storage, transfer, visualization, and most of all making sense of big data through models they share with their virtual collaborators across the world. 

Businesses need to actively engage by investing not only financial support but also, and more importantly, time and energy to equip students with the expertise and skills needed to drive innovation. In order to encourage the very best graduates to pursue a career in STEM they need to nurture the next generation and in doing so work closely with academic organisations in both research and curriculum development. 

To this point, a study by MathWorks revealed that Universities and businesses believed that the skills gap can be mitigated with greater collaboration between academia and industry. 74% of respondents agreed that they saw the value of project-based learning, which invites students to investigate science and real-world engineering problems ‘hands-on’.

‘Recent developments in low cost, accessible hardware provide an exciting opportunity to bring project-based learning from the classroom and laboratory to the home.’

Recent developments in low cost, accessible hardware provide an exciting opportunity to bring project-based learning from the classroom and laboratory to the home. Hardware such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi allows students to get hands-on experience that brings theory into practice in a fun and engaging way. Through participation in these projects, students will also develop transferable skills that will be applicable to future careers in STEM.  

Another example of hands-on learning, this time at the university level, is student competitions such as Formula Student – Europe’s most established educational motorsport competition – through which businesses are able to help students to develop real-world experience. It’s not only practical engineering skills that are developed by participating in student competitions; working as part of a team on such an extensive project also helps to build transferrable skills including team work, problem solving, critical thinking and communication; all vital in any future profession.  

Businesses can help students by sharing their experience and by facilitating educational projects that enable a holistic approach to tackling real-world design problems, while developing different ways of thinking that encourage creativity and innovation. They should help develop materials that support the curriculum while also mirroring real-life applications and place a higher value on longer-term project-based learning. 

Whilst the government plays a key role in promoting and investing in education, there is also an opportunity for businesses as well as Universities to work together to help inspire and equip the next generation of scientists, financiers, managers, engineers and mathematicians through technology. This collaborative approach will benefit individuals by opening up a diverse and exciting career path as well as benefiting the UK economy as STEM skills form the core competency of industries that will contribute to future economic growth but more importantly addressing the grand challenges of the 21st century.

Coorous Mohtadi is a senior member of the MathWorks, a computer software developer for engineers and scientists.

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