STEM champions speak up for hands-on education

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford

News editor

A panel discussion at IP EXPO Europe 2016 saw fresh perspectives angled at the on going debate surrounding STEM –related skills shortages.

The skills gap in STEM-related subjects is well documented, as are the negative, knock on effects to the economy.

The perceived causes are discussed regularly and potential solutions are implemented; yet the issues around STEM and STEM careers recur time and again.

Taking a position on the subject at IP EXPO were TV personalities and STEM exponents Maggie Philbin and Johnny Ball, who were joined by Prof Will Stewart, the vice president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and Marc Waters, HPE’s MD for the UK and Ireland. Dr Sue Black chaired the discussion in which Ball declared the school curriculum as ‘a total mess’, arguing that engineering is beyond the curriculum, which is where young minds want to be in the first place.

“To attract kids to STEM subjects, you’ve always got to treat children two years older than they actually are,” said Ball. “You’ve got to stretch the boundaries. And the curriculum doesn’t do that, at all.”

The curriculum comes in for more criticism with maths too heavily focused on numeracy at primary level and statistics at secondary level. Quite damningly, Ball believes the curriculum exists to test teachers and schools and does little for pupils.

“It is nothing to do with children, and that’s what is wrong,” he said. “If you do any STEM efforts, you take the kids out of the box. You have to entertain them and engage them and attract their attention. You don’t send them to sleep.

“The basis of technology and engineering has always been hands on. And kids love to get hands on. They like to get involved. But you have to show them the way and show them the basis of these ideas. You set projects that are a little beyond them, but you give them the clues to get them there. And that is education and that is how you move forward.”

A discussion surrounding the uptake of STEM subjects and the numbers of people entering related careers will often look at how few women are entering the fold. According to the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), the number of female A-level physics students rose by 0.1% in 2016 compared to 2015, and in the same time frame there have been 0.3% more ‘female engineering and technology undergraduate qualifiers’ to 14% (or 4,440 out of 31,805).

According to NCUB, young women make up more than half of ‘dentistry and medicine undergraduate qualifiers’, so what’s stopping them applying their STEM skills in engineering?

According to Philbin, leader of TeenTech, the opportunity to be an engineer must be paramount.

“No statistics - for example, telling me that if we had X number more women working in engineering and technology that the UK will be better off by £60bn - are going to convince me to be an engineer. That isn’t enough. I have to actually feel that I am really enjoying being an engineer and I want to do it. It’s those opportunities. So we need to find ways of giving students that currently don’t have those opportunities the chance to make discoveries.”

For its part, NCUB is running the 5th Talent 2030 National Engineering Competition for Girls, which is designed to encourage female students to consider careers in engineering and manufacturing. According to NCUB, the competition asks them to solve a twenty-first century problem and entrants have until 6pm on 16th December to file their idea. The winner will be awarded £1000, a female engineer mentor and student membership to the Women’s Engineering Society.

Back at IP EXPO, the panellists agreed that businesses, government, educators, and parents need to unite to find viable solutions to the STEM skills crisis.

“From a business standpoint, creating opportunity and promoting that opportunity to young people to create the demand for the skills is really important,” said Waters. “And to do that more effectively alongside the government, as this is definitely an area in which government could listen more to business on.”

Waters added that government should be more proactive in creating the right perception around skills-based education.

“The government spent a lot of time creating a perception that degree-based education was the be-all and end-all. And children were driven towards that without creating the right profile for skills," said Waters. "The Degree Apprenticeship, for example, is a great initiative, but we need to see a better implementation of the apprenticeship level. Which is a great opportunity to see the government listen to businesses about how we can do more with that, because it is in businesses’ interest to attract young people via skills-based learning and to create apprenticeships.”