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Steering students towards STEM

The debate about how to convince school students to pursue STEM subjects and then to take a career using those skills is not restricted to the UK. The US has been addressing the topic for some time now and, it would appear, has not come any closer to developing a solution.

However, a management researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio says he has identified factors that could lead to more young people studying STEM subjects and then pursuing a career in the field. These factors, says Huy Le, ‘could be useful’ to identify future STEM participants at early age.

His nine year study followed more than 34,000 young people from their early teens until six years or later into their careers. Amongst his conclusions are that US students are ‘perfectly capable and interested in entering those fields, but aren’t being encouraged to pursue a STEM career’. He also found no difference in the ability of women and men to succeed, determining the lack of women following STEM careers is ‘probably due to societal factors’.

And it’s likely those ‘societal factors’ could be extended to men. Some years ago, I heard Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, amongst other things, tell a conference that US universities were producing more sports science graduates every year than all types of engineer combined. His comment was along the lines of ‘paying people to hold towels and hand out water bottles’.

One of his more recent quotes is: “You have teenagers thinking they’re going to make millions as NBA stars when that’s not realistic for even 1% of them. Becoming a scientist or engineer is.”

One of the discussion points when it comes to engineering as a career is the lack of role models; by contrast, there are plenty of sports stars, recording artists and characters like Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko that point potential engineers in other directions.

Here’s a quote from Dr Marianne Ellis, from the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering, on National Women in Engineering Day in 2014. “Unfortunately, engineering can sometimes suffer from a bit of an image problem – especially among girls – and it is not widely recognised for the exciting, dynamic careers that it offers. Role models of successful female engineers are really important.”

One potential way around this apparent impasse is, ironically, to not focus on engineering. Instead, students could be inspired to be engineers by challenging them to solve problems. In a recent article in The Guardian, Peter Wilby suggested the curriculum should be developed to support ‘doing, designing and problem solving’. But he said ‘the Government prefers to impose a rigid academic curriculum that fails (and bores) roughly half of our young people’.

A teacher contributing from the floor at last year’s ARM Forum – which discussed how to encourage greater interest in STEM subjects amongst school students – reinforced this view, saying ‘the exciting stuff is extra curricular’.

It all comes down to the Government setting the agenda. However, an obsession with imposing Far East cramming techniques as a means of teaching maths and an apparent determination to set education back 50 years with a return to grammar schools and selection suggests the changes for which many are calling will never happen.

Graham Pitcher

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What you think about this article:

A very good article putting forward some new views on a subject that is close to my heart (I'm now a STEM Ambassador and a member of the IEEE UK and Ireland Women in Engineering Committee).

There are some good signs for the future - I believe there's been a record number of students sitting A-level Maths this year, but we still have lots of work to do to counteract the view among young people that there's easy money to be made by just becoming a 'celebrity'. I think sports is possibly at the less insidious end of that spectrum in this country, where people can achieve fame overnight on shows like Big Brother and TOWIE with no skills or talent at all. Also I believe that TV programmes like The Big Bang Theory don't do us any favours by portraying engineers and scientists as socially inadequate geeks.

It's absolutely true that role models are important as well, and not only female ones for girls either. My dad was an engineer, and Dame Ann Dowling has been quoted as saying that she felt lucky her father had been an engineer.

Posted by: Helen Duncan, 18/08/2016

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