Showcases to help inspire

The Paul Jackson blog

The White Houses annual STEM fair is a vital showcase to honour and recognise young innovators, and acts as a spur to get people involved in science, engineering and technology. THe UK should follow suit with an event at 10 Downing St, argues the chief executive of Engineering UK

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

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.