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Interview: Delivering the facts about Stem careers

Edwina Dunn, chair of the Your Life campaign, says the tech industry must work harder to make students aware of Stem careers if it hopes to recruit more young people

More needs to be done to ensure young people are aware of what a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) entails and what they need to do to get there, Edwina Dunn, chair of the Your Life campaign and co-creator of the Tesco Clubcard, told Computer Weekly.

The Your Life campaign aims to create resources for young people to help them better understand what careers could be available to them and how they can reach their goals.

Dunn said: “To fix all the communications strands young people would turn to – careers officers, parents, universities – what we’re trying to do is go direct to young people so they can self-service, make up their own minds.”

The changing face of tech

Currently there is a disconnect between the subjects children study in school and the jobs they believe they may go into.

Many experts have claimed today’s tech roles did not exist when the people filling them were in school and the jobs current students will step into may not exist yet either.

Dunn claims this message is not filtering down to parents, teachers and school children, leaving them ill-informed about potential Stem jobs they could later train for.

Not only are children unaware of what jobs are available, but teachers cannot be experts in all possible careers for a student, meaning children will not study subjects that could help them in a future Stem career.

“There are 70,000 jobs where, if you have maths or physics, you are a shoo in,” Dunn says.

“But everybody is still turning to where the jobs aren’t as opposed to where the jobs are. Careers advice everybody knows is old. It’s hard to fix that.”

Meanwhile more people are beginning to leave university without the skills needed to go straight into a job.

Even those who do graduate in computer science suffer a high unemployment rate, and many are resorting to non-traditional methods to gain the skills they need for a Stem job.

The subject cost controversy

The Your Life campaign commissioned the Tough Choices report in 2015 to investigate why students choose not to purse Stem careers even when they are achieving A or A* grades at GCSE level.

It found that girls are turning away from subjects such as maths and physics at a higher rate than boys, and revealed 40% of state schools in the UK have no students studying A Level physics.

Dunn says one of the possible reasons for this is that many schools are measured on grade averages rather than the subjects they deliver, which could cause a “tilt” towards subjects it is easier to get a high grade in – not necessarily subjects such as physics or maths.

“Ranking schools by their grades is well intended, but it’s just too one-dimensional,” Dunn says.

“Students are very clever – they go where they’re rewarded best. If the reward is going to a great university by doing particular subjects that they’ve been tilted towards, that’s what’s going to happen.”

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But this causes a skills gap later as students “win at the education system”, but then do not have the right skills for the job market.

Similarly, universities are worse off as programmes with fewer students are more costly to run, and Stem courses can be undersubscribed.

Bridging the knowledge gap

To encourage students to study Stem subjects, the Your Life campaign is working to produce digital resources to fill the gaps left by ageing careers advice systems.

Your Life hopes to build an application for students to discover Stem roles, and is already using social media to promote careers such as app and games development, and science and business.

Dunn says: “We’re trying to deliver the facts straight to them, and we’ve created a dedicated YouTube channel to promote math and physics as an exciting career that’s fun, creative, really well paid.”

By discovering what students are interested in, Dunn hopes the resources and application can point students in the right direction, advising them what to study to gain the best results for the career they want to pursue.

Dunn’s background is in data, having co-founded the Tesco Clubcard, and she plans to use data to create a foundation for an application to help students make career decisions. 

The aim is to partner with organisations to use data to develop resources enabling students to find out about careers and jobs they may previously have been unaware of.

Dunn says: “We don’t particularly feel expert in creating the app itself. What we think we can do is bring together the data that will help make someone else’s app really good and really strong. All we care about is that it gets to as many young people as possible.”

Your Life has already partnered with management consultancy AT Kearney to pull together data sets, such as from the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education, to help students make career decisions.

Your Life hopes to bring a student-focused app to market within the next 18 months.

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Aging career advice systems may be a contributing factor, but it’s more likely to be a lack of knowledge and skills on the part of the teachers and school administrators. What’s the differentiator between a CS student graduating college without the necessary skills versus an education student graduating college without the necessary skills? If today’s tech roles did not exist when the people filling them were in school then it’s a safe bet that they didn’t exist when the people learning what to teach were in school either.
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We've provided far too much verbal support and far too little outreach. If there's any hope of advancing STEM learning, we need futurists to help plan for an influx of tech wannabes ready to do WHAT? Unless we provide the funding and make the considerable effort to train students to OUR business, they won't be ready to work when we're ready to hire.
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