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Showcases to help inspire

Last month the White House held its annual science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) Fair. Hosted by none other than President Obama himself, it represented the best way I can think of to inspire young scientists and engineers and show the world a Government’s recognition of the importance of STEM to its future.

This year’s White House Fair paid particular attention to encouraging young women to pursue STEM and raised awareness of the fact that women in STEM occupations earn more than those in non-STEM careers, closing the wage gap between men and women.

The White House’s web pages are full of case studies of young women working on extraordinary projects and inventions, from 18 year-old electric vehicle engineer Deidre Carrillo to teen software designers Amena Jamali and Juan Ramos, and 14 year-old inventor Kavita Selva who invented a magnet containing just a small amount of rare-earth elements.

On this side of the pond, we also have fantastic examples of promising, inspiring young engineers. This year’s UK Young Engineer of the Year, Rebecca Simpson, was recognised for designing and building an arcade game to help young people to revise STEM subjects (in fact, Twitter offered Rebecca an internship the day after winning her award).

With her partner Wasim Miah, Jessica Jones became UK Young Engineer of the Year 2012 for her invention combining electronics and mechanics to measure the intensity of foetal contractions to provide a clear and simple indication when mothers are about to go into labour. Jessica is now studying Astrophysics at Cardiff University and is an active ambassador for STEM.


Rebecca Simpson, second from left, was named Young Engineer of the Year at this year’s Big Bang Fair

Unfortunately there’s no such showcase on the webpage of Number Ten – not yet anyway. The UK certainly has plenty of case studies, should the opportunity arise.

Meanwhile, the engineering community is busy and is taking big strides to bring STEM careers to the fore for young people, particularly young women. Much of this work focuses on encouraging women not to rule themselves out but to actively rule themselves in to the varied, well-paid careers that open up through studying physics and maths.

Flagship programmes, The Big Bang and Tomorrow’s Engineers engage an equal split of boys and girls. Girls in particular respond to interactive exposure to the real world of STEM. The evaluation of The Big Bang Fair 2014 found that the appeal of engineering careers significantly increased among girls aged 11 to 14, from 31% before the Fair to 53% after their visit.  

The new Your Life campaign, launched in May, puts physics and maths centre stage with organisations, including leading UK businesses and professional bodies, pledging their commitment to promote STEM to young people and encourage diversity.  The campaign, which has cross-party support from the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education, aims to increase the number of students - particularly girls - taking maths and physics at GCSE and A-level, keeping their options open to pursue a range of exciting careers in growing industries.

This month also saw the launch of Opening Doors, a pilot project between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Institute of Physics looking into gender-related obstacles in schools, which stand between students, their subject choices and, ultimately, their career paths.

As the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) further demonstrated in its recent report on jobs, skills and vocational education, this action is vital if we are to match the skills of our future workforce – boys and girls making choices about their studies - to those needed by employers. The IPPR’s report Winning The Global Race found that 39% of vacancies in skilled trades are caused by skills shortages, for example.

The Prime Minister’s mantra rings true: this is a global race; and the White House’s STEM Fair highlights the fact that the US is competing to win. With the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport all committed to ensuring the UK becomes a front-runner in STEM, it would be great to see the Prime Minister’s Office play its part. A Big Bang at Number 10 would be a good start.


Readers' comments (2)

  • While the idea behind this is definitely worth exploring I'd be inclined to say that No.10 would be the wrong venue for it. Obama seems to be far more respected amongst the younger generation of America than any British politician in recent years and has made it his mission to be seen to take an interest in emergent technology, engineering projects etc.

    A Young Engineer's Convention/Innovation Fair held at an iconically British site that has ties to our engineering past may go a lot further to drive involvment and buy-in to STEM among younger people. Having recently graduated I know I would be far more proud of getting the approval and advice from a well-respected, highly qualified industry figure such as Mark Hunt (Pres. of IMechE or contempories like Jessica Jones than I would from any current politician.

    I'm not doubting that state involvement is probably a requirement but let's not sell short our industry's own figure heads at the expense of a wider news catchment. When was the last time we had a nationally celebrated engineer the likes of Brunel to inspire and lead others?

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  • For some years it has been my privilege to escort mixed parties of school children -ranging in age from 9-18- around the National Trust property, Quarry Bank Mill, close by Manchester Airport. This is a working 'textile' museum, a World heritage site and in addition to the examples of the application of 'science' in the many working machines, a valuable source of information about the social circumstances of those who owned, managed and worked in that era. The popular and extremely valuable (to us) Channel 4 programme, the Mill- a second series is to be screened starting this weekend, was filmed at QBM: and many of the children who visit us -and their parents- have seen it. Visitor numbers are up 50%. What is clear is that a 'good' mention on the 'Tele' is worth more than any other type of publicity: and it is to be hoped that programmes describing the joy of Engineering and technology -linked to the personal stories of those involved- will become a future draw into 'our' industry. Sadly, the producers/writers favour accidents, disasters, social mis-fits, sex, illness, disease, get the picture, -"its more Box-office?" rather than portraying the amazing inventions that, applied to textile processing started off 'the Industrial r-evolution'

    I have to hope that our leaders know this?

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