Reach for the STEM stars

Hattie / 5th Mar, 2018 / News

Next week is British Science Week. Have you thought about a career in science?

Next week is British Science Week – a “ten day celebration” of STEM subjects – that’s science, technology, engineering and maths.

“Celebration” might be pushing a point under the circumstances which are that the UK is facing a very serious skills shortage in all STEM areas.

According to the Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (SEMTA) the country will need nearly two million new entrants to the engineering sector by the time those currently enjoying primary school come to working age – and it looks as though there will be a considerable shortfall.

It’s a very serious situation given the UK is the world’s 5th largest economy – a position that has largely been built on the basis of the technical skills of our workforce. Other, newer countries like India and Indonesia are investing heavily in their technical workforce and the UK risks being left behind in the global race for a bigger economy.

Why the impending shortage in STEM skills? In an interview she gave last year, SEMTA’s chief executive, Ann Watson identifies a number of possible causes. It seems a lot of the blame lies with schools simply not making STEM subjects interesting or appealing enough to younger children. Judging by the under-representation of women in engineering (fewer than 10 percent according to the Institute of Engineering and Technology), schools aren’t making it very appealing to girls, either.

It’s not all schools’ fault. There’s also the fact that potential engineering and technical employers are being squeezed by both the apprenticeship levy and health and safety legislation that makes them think twice about taking on young people for work placements. Not to mention Brexit. Parents, too, have a role to play. Curiosity – wanting to know how things work – is cited as a key reason for people choosing a scientific career and parents need to encourage this where they can. They also need to get over any snobbery about apprenticeships being a real, serious alternative to university.

This lack of interest in how things work all seems a bit counterintuitive in a world that is increasingly connected and hugely more dependent on technological bits of kit. Perhaps, in the same way as people are distanced from the origin of the food they consume – ie, fewer people associate a BigMac with a living, breathing, grass-eating, cow, so the more mobile gadgets, Fitbits and Xboxes we have, the less we question how it was made. That, plus the fact that we are a society that chucks things away in vast quantities.

It’s an image thing

The situation is at least being taken seriously by government and employers. It is possible as never before to get into a scientific or engineering career with Btecs being offered in construction, engineering, agriculture or animal management. Companies that rely heavily on employees with STEM skills like Jaguar Land Rover and BAE Systems are investing heavily in apprenticeship schemes. In education, BAE Systems runs a programme across 420 schools, covering 90,000 pupils in which it also focuses on encouraging more women to consider the profession.

What BAE recognised is that there was – and still is to a certain extent – an image problem with STEM careers. Their literature now features more women enjoying the engineering apprenticeships they offer.

Anyone who listened to an interview with Ailie MacAdam recently should be encouraged to know what fantastic career opportunities there are for people specialising in a STEM subject. Inspired by her dad, she was always interested in making things and wondering how stuff worked. She’s now in charge of some of the biggest engineering projects in the world. She’s a massive champion of the sector – and she’s passionate about encouraging more women to follow her lead. But, however inspirational she is, she does reflect an image of a highly educated, middle class, older, white woman. It’s an image that is becoming more out of step with UK society.

Will British Science Week, aimed at everyone but, it would appear, principally at teachers and younger school kids, help build up a positive image for scientists engineers and mathematicians of the future? It’s a good, well-meaning programme – but significantly it lacks any role models. In fact, the website doesn’t appear to have any people appearing in it at all. It’s all a bit, well, cold.

People relate to people – especially the ones to whom they can look up to like sports stars, singers, entertainers or fashion icons. So, who and where are the inspirational STEM stars of the future?

It’s high time we started looking!


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