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Students who don’t pick Stem are “cutting themselves off”

Students who drop Stem subjects are cutting themselves off from a future tech career and widening the skills gap

The failure to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers at schools is causing a drop-off of Stem-based choices throughout education, cutting students off from related careers, Chris Hayhurst of software firm Mathworks has warned.

Mathworks has recently paired with the Science Museum and the Cambridge Science Centre to dissuade students from dropping science, technology, engineering and maths-based subjects, giving them more of a chance of a career in Stem industries and roles if they want one in the future.

“We’re very keen to see long term that the UK is producing people out of the education system from primary school to secondary school to university, people who are interested, enthusiastic, who will be into Stem, because we know there is a tendency for people not to choose those subjects as they go through school,” Hayhurst said.

“Then they’ve really cut themselves off.”

Hayhurst also pointed out that the skills gap is widening because many students graduate from university without any Stem-based skills at all.  

Some organisations are addressing the crisis by recruiting and training up staff now to plug the skills gap and increase the retention rate for their companies. It’s something that Mathworks is already doing.

“There’s a limited pool of people; we need to make the best of those people that we’ve got right now but also feed that funnel and make sure that in the future there are more of those people coming through because we want our industry to grow,” Hayhurst explained.

“The people who are going to be interested anyway – because they’ve got parents who are scientists or mathematicians – will pick these subjects and will go through; what we’re really keen to do is make sure that reach is widened.”

Long-term plan

But it’s also important to expand the number of people who want to do Stem in the future so the drop-off doesn’t continue. Part of the collaboration between Mathworks, the Science Museum and the Cambridge Science Centre is addressing this.  

“We want to invest in the long term to encourage children at the earlier stages that Stem in particular is being overlooked, that all of those areas would be interesting, that they’d be hands-on, and people will get to grips with them and see that they’re fun and just limitless in their scope,” Hayhurst said.

He added that collaboration has made it easier to promote a unified message.  

“We could go off on all different kinds of projects and set things up in isolation, but then that’s just a proliferation of separate initiatives,” he explained.

The collaboration has allowed Mathworks to use the Science Museum and the Cambridge Science Centre to reach an audience it would not normally have access to.

“We see our role in quite a wide sense as to increase scientific literacy and to encourage people in scientific skills, and that’s really important in plugging the skills gap at the moment. But it’s also really important for adults to get into science now to encourage their own children to get into science in the future,” said Toby Parkin from the London Science Museum.

“We try to look at encouraging scientific skills in people and if that leads to a career that’s fantastic. But we go a lot further than that in one sense because we do have exhibitions for careers in Stem.”

Single message

Parkin said the collaboration between different museums and science centres across the country has transformed a message that was once disparate into one focused on achieving the same goal – getting people interested in Stem.

“Joining up with corporate institutions from our point of view enables us to do things we can’t normally do, and then working with government as well gives us access to their networks and can sometimes be a stamp of approval,” Parkin said.

“Sometimes you can run projects over a longer period of time and you can start to see impact, which is what we want, in comparison to short-term projects where sometimes that impact is quite temporary.”

All three organisations have found that their events not only stimulate interest in Stem among teenagers, but also help to create adult role models, with parents encouraging Stem-based learning in their children.

“What we find is that the kids bring the parents in, so once we’ve popped up in the school we’ve got access to the parents in a way that we wouldn’t have,” said Andy Donnelly from the Cambridge Science Centre.

This creates an interest lifecycle, where children encourage adults, who in turn encourage children.

“It’s developing a relationship with them rather than being a one-hit wonder and sort of walking away leaving people asking what’s next,” Donnelly explained.

“It’s getting them excited and using the technology as a tool to do something that is relevant to them and exciting. It’s to actually show the process and get them involved in that coding at a level which leads to them doing something fun rather than it just being a black box.”

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Well, STEM subjects aren't for everyone, either. I may have earned a degree in computer science and bring home a decent paycheck, but it doesn't necessarily make me happy. 

Once I become more financially secure (which will be soon), I intend to explore other career options outside of technology, and I will have the freedom to choose something that pays less if I decide that's what I want. 
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The bigger problem, to me, is often in the way these courses are taught. I have three children, one who has completed high school, and two others who are currently in high school. The overly pedantic rules and structure that is often applied to STEM classes, at least in the curriculum here, does little to promote curiosity and excitement. It's treated as boring and often a slog to get through. Every once in awhile, someone approaches it from an angle that gets kids genuinely excited, and then the results are fantastic, but if we are concerned about kids selecting out, it may help to look a little deeper as to "why" they are selecting out. Aptitude is probably not the biggest issue. I'd bet boredom is.
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I think @Michael raises a good point that I’ve seen - it’s often the the approach, and many instructors lack a compelling, appealing approach when it comes to STEM classes. Here’s one local teacher that really gets it, and drives the interest of not only her students, but also her fellow teachers: http://thetsin.org/news/2015/fairview-elementary-wins-national-aerospace-award/
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