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Encouraging kids into Stem: problems and suggestions

Influencers within the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) sectors describe the problems preventing children from pursuing Stem careers, and how they might be fixed

The UK is suffering from a skills gap. Graduates are leaving university without the skills needed to go straight into work, leaving the IT industry with a lack of skilled workers. The number of unfilled digital jobs in Europe is forecast to reach 756,000 by 2020. 

More than half of IT decision-makers believe there are not enough young and talented people in their organisations.

Taking part in a discussion on the matter at IP Expo 2016 were Tech Mums founder Sue Black, TV presenter Johnny Ball, IET vice-president Will Stewart, Hewlett Packard Enterprise UK & Ireland MD Marc Waters, and Teen Tech founder Maggie Philbin.

They highlighted a limited curriculum, lack of support for teachers and limited government involvement as the main causes of a shortage of young people going into science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).

The panel said that by injecting more creativity into the school curriculum and making parents more aware of what a tech job involved, many more people could be driven towards Stem subjects.

Tech Mums founder Sue Black said: “You can change an attitude in hours.”

The panel claimed the current curriculum was very limited because there was such a strong emphasis on passing exams and no focus on giving teachers and students space to work on self-led projects.

In 2014, the government made it mandatory for children between the ages of five and 16 to be taught computing, including coding and computational thinking concepts.

Not fit for purpose

But the panel said that in many places the current curriculum – computing and otherwise – was not fit for purpose and did not allow children to discover a real passion for subject areas such as Stem.

Black said schools should not just be about passing exams, but about engaging students in project-based learning that encouraged problem-solving, “rather than focus on league tables”.

Panellists argued that since the introduction of digital had caused all industries to evolve, education should change to meet new requirements.

Johnny Ball, TV presenter and maths enthusiast, said: “The curriculum is a total mess and it’s not going to produce engineers.”

Not fully engaged

He said the core of engineering was “beyond the curriculum” and without a deeper look into the subject matter, children would not be fully engaged in Stem.

Ball suggested using simple tools and projects to demonstrate mathematics, technology and physics theories. This was more likely to interest children and and “give them power” through what they were learning at school.

“It’s about teaching young people to do better and to go into engineering,” he said. “Engineering is much more exciting than anything else they might consider.

“Engineering has always been hands on, and kids love to be hands on.”

Ball also suggested that retired engineers or tech experts should become teachers to bring a different angle to how these subjects should be taught. He said bringing in such people could “change the whole attitude of a school”.

Thinking outside the box

Although the panel called for project-based work outside the school curriculum, it highlighted the need for teachers to guide this focus.

Maggie Philbin said that the way subjects were currently taught was not always creative, and that children and teachers were not given the opportunity to make decisions because the curriculum was so restrictive.

Industry experts have highlighted the need for candidates with both tech skills and soft skills such as teamworking, communication and project management, but Philbin said the current curriculum was producing “safe thinkers” by spoon-feeding them with work rather than encouraging children to discover things for themselves.

“In the world of work, other things are important as well,” she said.

Philbin suggested that introducing self-led projects would “bring a bit of danger back to the classroom” and allow children to discover things for themselves, engaging them more and making them more likely to take an interest in Stem careers.

Who are the influencers?

But the problem with Stem lies not only with teachers not being able to teach in innovative ways, but also a lack of awareness among others who influence children, such as parents.

According to Philbin, children will often not pursue Stem subjects because they are not fully aware of what career roles exist.

“It’s about reaching out to communities that don’t understand the opportunities that are out there,” she said.

But when trying to encourage young people into Stem, it is important that schools and other organisations are “not preaching to the converted” who are already on the path to a tech future, the panel said.

Will Stewart, vice-president of IET, said the push for Stem might be more effective if slightly older children were targeted to excite them about the subjects at an age when enthusiasm may have dropped off.

“We have got to find a good way to convince young people that [Stem] is the future,” he said.

Parents are significant influencers in their children’s choice of career, with 84% of kids saying they ask their parents for career advice.

As tech becomes a huge part of all organisations, the need for digital skills is growing, and Stewart said more should be done to inform parents, teachers and students what skills would be needed going forward.

“None of us think about what our kids are going to be doing in five years’ time,” said Stewart.

As well as giving students more creative projects to encourage them into Stem careers, parents should also have the opportunity to get involved in these initiatives, he added.

“It’s about providing opportunities for parents when people are developing projects and making sure that the parents have involvement in these projects,” he said.

Getting government more involved

Many small groups and organisations, such as Stemettes, TeenTech and Apps for Good, are dedicated to encouraging children, and especially young girls, into Stem and these initiatives are often helped by large IT firms.

But the panel said there should not only be more collaboration between such individual organisations, but between government, tech organisations and schools to drive students towards Stem.

Many have claimed that collaboration is the only way the tech industry can unite against a lack of skills and women in IT, and Marc Waters, MD of HPE, said industry should invest more in developing the UK’s Stem skills.  

“The nurturing of Stem skills is important for a number of reasons,” he said. “It matters to everyone, from our business and workforce, to our customers and the wider economy. There is a long way to go, but if we work together as an industry, we have the potential to build an enviable Stem talent pool for the future.”

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The government has made efforts to promote Stem skills, including its initiative to provide unskilled adults with Stem training, but although Waters called this a positive move, he said the government should do more to promote the importance of Stem skills.

Waters highlighted the new Apprenticeship Levy, under which firms can apply for funding to take on apprentices.

But although this was a positive move, Waters said the levy did not allow HPE to use the funds to promote its apprenticeships.

He said many people still believed apprenticeships were not as valuable as other educational routes, such as university degrees, and claimed the ability to use the levy’s funds to promote alternatives routes would be helpful in promoting Stem careers.

“It’s an area where the government could listen more to businesses and work more closely with business,” said Waters.

“A cultural shift needs to happen to encourage children to look at different options. The future belongs to the fast, and careers advice has to keep up.”

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