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Encourage able students towards STEM careers

A response to the Education and Employers report Disconnected: Career aspirations and jobs in the UK

By Dr Jo Foster, Director of Institute of Research in Schools

For some time now STEM has been seen as the ‘pragmatic’ choice when choosing subjects for sixth form and university. Too often, we see that young people feel conflicted by the idea that creativity and science cannot coexist, and perhaps to choose one means rejecting the other.

This is highlighted by the recent report from Education and Employers, which found a worrying disconnect between young people’s career aspirations and what jobs will be available to them. Respondents aged between 14 and 18 were overwhelmingly interested in working in the art, culture, entertainment and sport sectors, with five times as many young people looking to enter these industries than there were jobs available. Even more worrying from my perspective, is that over half of respondents did not have an interest in any other sector.

This is a ticking time bomb, and what’s worse, a wholly unnecessary one.

We know there are opportunities abound for those students who choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, and that this can open up a world of possibilities for them. The UK has a shortfall of scientists, with no sign of this changing anytime soon. There is an annual shortfall of at least 20,000 engineering graduates, and it is estimated that by 2024 the UK will need to train at least 186,000 engineers each year in order to keep up with industry demand.

So, we know that there are jobs out there for young people who are interested in this sector. The challenge is to ignite this interest in the first place, helping them develop and retain a love of science from an early age. This challenge is what fuels our work at the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), where we make cutting-edge research projects accessible to school students and their teachers, giving them data, provide support, guidance, and resources, and even lending out specialist research equipment, all at no cost to them.

Our student scientists quickly build their confidence in handling data and equipment and learn to work in collaboration with external experts. We want to bring the science community together, tearing down barriers between institutions and demystifying the process for the next generation, of students and teachers alike.

Because our experience shows that if we offer young people the chance to engage with science, to do their own practical experiments that mean something and to work with experts in the field, then they fall in love with the subject and their passion swiftly grows. This isn’t about forcing young people to follow a discipline they have no interest in just so that they can find work, or telling them to give up on their dreams, but instead showing them a whole new world, they can choose to explore.

We’ve offered students the chance to tackle climate change with the Centre for Polar Observation, to engage with gene structures in the human whipworm genome, and to analyse data from the Large Hadron Collider before presenting at a Higgs Conference. These ground-breaking projects give young people the opportunity to work alongside professional scientists and to get a sense of real-world science. But more than that, we are giving them a direct hand in scientific breakthroughs. These projects are making a real difference to the wider world, and it’s that which gives students such a buzz when they take part.

It’s even helping with their existing schoolwork. We found that A level Biology students progressed three times faster than those who did not participate in our programmes, while the number of students going on to study STEM subjects post-18 increased for those schools who worked with us.

Yes, there are practical reasons why we should recommend students take STEM subjects at university, but practicality alone should not be the driving force behind this decision. Instead, we want our young people to study science because it’s a route to following their dreams, because they are driven by an unstoppable curiosity to find out how the world works, and they want to play their part in decoding the mysteries of it.  

Seeing IRIS alumni go on and study STEM subjects at university is a real pleasure, and it highlights the huge success of our work. I am excited for the years ahead, to see our graduates go on and take up leading positions in the scientific community and help us take huge leaps forward in our collective scientific understanding.

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