STEM education needs to keep real world in focus

/q/u/b/62_Paul_Jackson_Hig_Res.jpgThe Paul Jackson blog

The chief executive of EngineeringUK highlights some STEM careers stories that got lost towards the end of 2016.

Some news is deliberately buried and in the festive season some simply gets overlooked, but there were a number of stories that caught my eye at the back end of 2016.

Firstly, the OECD issued the results of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Amongst other things, the PISA data suggests more than a quarter of teenagers in England are considering a career in science, while three-quarters of pupils believe their STEM lessons are helping to prepare them for life after education.

A new surgical interentions engneering research centre at UCL was announced at the end of last year
A new surgical interventions engineering research centre at UCL was announced at the end of last year.  Image: UCL

In contrast a MathWorks survey released the same week said teachers believe the curriculum is failing STEM careers. The survey showed that 79% of teachers believe that students who spend time enjoying STEM-related extracurricular activities are more engaged with STEM subjects in the classroom. And the majority of teachers felt that students typically start taking an interest in career choices by age 14.

Children aged 11-14 are the main focus of activity for Tomorrow’s Engineers and account for the majority of students visiting The Big Bang Fair each year. We know that this is a crucial time in framing career options and making subject choices – choosing STEM subjects keeps options open and that’s an important message for that age group.

We know that young people enjoy taking part in a Tomorrow’s Engineers activity or visiting The Big Bang Fair but it can’t just be about enjoyment, we have to be more ambitious than that. Whenever we engineers and other STEM professionals are actively engaging with young people the goal has to be to improve perceptions of the industry, show how classroom learning is applied in the real world and ultimately to encourage more young people to continue with science and maths post-14.

Another story from December was the announcement of a £13m investment in a new surgical interventions centre at University College London. In itself it’s unlikely to be of interest to an 11 to 14 year old, but they will understand that combining engineering and medicine means better outcomes for patients, less invasive surgeries and innovative solutions that will save lives.

Through targeting and active coordination we can bring classroom learning to life and involve more young people in meaningful STEM-related activities to offer the benefits of extra-curricular activities to youngsters of all backgrounds and abilities.

The PISA data was released alongside the announcement of a £12m investment in science in English schools. The programme has as one of its goals to help schools to encourage more teenagers to take GCSE triple science – physics, chemistry and biology. Let’s hope that investment delivers on its promise and we see more high quality CPD for teachers and a higher volume of young people choosing STEM.

For our part, we must continue to drive up the number of quality engagements with those young people and broadcast a compelling narrative that brings to life the engineering and technology that shapes our world and our lives.