More effort required to equip Stem students with skills for the future

Westminster Higher Education Forum highlights Stem skills shortage and maps plan for future

More needs to be done to increase the number of students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) and to equip them with the necessary skills for the future, according to speakers at a recent Westminster Higher Education Forum event.

The keynote seminar – Addressing the Stem skills gap – was chaired by Peter Luff, former chair of House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee. He opened the event by saying: “We need more role models and we all need to work harder to ensure universities produce the graduates we need.”

Sa’ad Medhat, CEO of NEF: The Innovation Institute, said that throughout his 30 years in the industry he has repeatedly heard the same question – Are we equipping students with the right skills for the future?

Stem skills in demand

A recent study from NEF found that only 16% of UK Stem companies said their skills needs were being met and 32% said finding the right people was a struggle.

The report predicted growth in a number of technology sub-sectors, including 3D printing, cloud technology, the internet of things and mobile, but Medhat pointed out that these are currently not included in the curriculum: “Jobs such as big data architects and virtual cloud agents didn’t exist a year ago. Can we keep up with change and filter that into the education system?

“Currently, there is a lack of consistent and coherent policy and a lack of leadership and innovation within institutions. We have to aim to produce people with the right abilities who can contribute to society and the economy, and who can fulfil their own aspirations. Plus we need to provide a replacement for the ageing workforce rapidly.”

The NEF report suggested a regional polytechnic for a collective way of addressing the problem and to foster a culture of inspiration with imaginative partnerships, investments and innovation. It also suggested a new breed of worker – the technologist.

Read more about Stem skills

Medhat said businesses need a view of the entire pipeline and to provide a better forecast of Stem skills: “This is not pie in the sky – it is happening across England to provide the set of skills the country needs for the future.”

Innovations in teaching technology skills

Speaking at the event was Shahneila Saeed, programme director of Digital Schoolhouse and board member for Computing At School. Saeed has been a teacher for 15 years, 12 of them as head of computing.

Digital Schoolhouse is a Major of London-backed scheme aimed at primary schools. “It’s about thinking outside the box and making things more enjoyable,” she said. 

“If I’m doing a day on game design, I’m not a designer so we ask the professionals how they do it. Previously, the children didn’t see a connection with their gaming in school and out of school. Their use of tech was a very different experience,” said Saeed.

“We have traditionally looked at what pupils need to learn and what’s the best or easiest way to teach that. It’s been about getting the job done – we looked at what needed to be done and found a resource that best fitted it. We flipped it to what looks like fun first and what can pupils learn from it.”

She pointed out that some things are considered “gimmicks”, but that those gimmicks are the key: “Sometimes the key to learning is the hook – the gimmick that gets them excited and wanting to learn more. What do pupils enjoy doing outside of the classroom? What is important to them? 

“It’s important to look beyond the barriers, such as Ofsted, and learn through alternative ways such as dance, magic, Playdough,” said Saeed. “I would have rejected all of those notions in the past. It’s about providing those creative ideas for problem-solving and allowing pupils to think creatively. It’s not just about programming.

More on tech skills for children

“We have previously thought of play as just something for the playground, not for a serious lesson. But the children picked something up because it was fun, not because they thought they were teaching themselves.”

Jo Cox, head of science and senior leader, Stem, at Redmoor Academy Leicestershire, agreed that young people need to be engaged before they learn in earnest. “Engage with those children who don’t think they’re clever enough for Stem, as there are a lot of them,” she said.

Apprenticeships in Stem

John Perkins, former chief scientific adviser at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, painted a similar picture for engineering skills. 

“There are various leaks in the pipeline for engineers, but I’m optimistic that this problem, which has been around for some time, will now receive some solutions,” he said.

“Recruiting more teachers in these key subjects is critical and we need more companies to engage in these activities. There are very few doing anything at the moment in terms of providing more context in schools.”

Perkins also stressed a need for more apprentices in Stem. 

“Apprenticeships are very important. There are more young people in engineering from apprenticeships than from graduate routes. There are quite a lot of smart young people taking apprenticeships and studying too, as the fees are paid for, whereas they are not down the traditional university route,” he said.

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