How can we encourage more young people to study STEM subjects and pursue careers in electronics and technology?

6 mins read

Despite the best efforts of industry, trade associations, skills councils, trade unions and Government, the consensus is that more still needs to be done to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers at schools.

The key issue is how to make a career in electronics and technology a more appealing prospect for students, especially girls, who are increasingly turning away from STEM subjects.

According to Chris Hayhurst, European consultancy manager with Mathworks: “Too many students are failing to choose STEM subjects as they go through school and many graduates leave university without any STEM based skills. I think children are turned off because they don’t perceive maths or physics as relevant.”

Stewart Edmondson, CEO of the UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF), highlights the lack of women graduates studying electronics at degree level.

“Fewer than 400 women were studying electronics at university in 2014. In general, women appear not to like studying electronics, but if you talk to them about overcoming challenges or solving problems, it begins to appeal. Too many are turning away and there aren’t enough female role models to inspire them.”

The manner or language used by schools and university departments to talk about technology is often criticised and is said to put young women off considering a career in science and engineering.

“We need to see more students enthused by STEM and we need to work back from graduate level, through secondary to primary school,” suggests Edmondson.

He has a point: by the age of 12, most pupils have a reasonable idea of which direction they want to take – whether it is concentrating on science, creative or humanities led subjects.

“The problem with STEM teaching seems to arise in secondary school,” says Hayhurst. “At primary school, children of both sexes engage in the same way, but if girls have had a poor experience of science at the secondary level, they give up. For many, STEM subjects are not creative in the way they see the arts or humanities.”

Shaping the next generation

Last year, ARM organised a forum at which an invited audience from business and academia discussed how the UK could ensure it had the right people in place to lead the country through what was described as the next ‘technological revolution’

Addressing the event – ‘Shaping the Next Tech Revolution’ – Simon Segars, ARM’s CEO, talked of the importance of increasing the supply of technologists and how the electronics industry ‘needed to encourage more young people to take an early interest in technology and develop careers in STEM-related subjects’.

Critics of current teaching in schools suggest that too much of the ‘exciting stuff’ is extra-curricular and overly reliant upon a core group of teachers willing to work outside normal hours. Rather than activities that are fun and engaging for students, the focus is on making course assessment easy.

Segars argued that STEM has to be introduced in a way that appeals to all students – boys AND girls, those good at maths AND those good at art. “We need to ‘de-geek’ technology and make it accessible for everyone – it should not be about technology per se.”

Research suggests that while many children don’t see themselves as ‘doing science’, they see scientists or engineers in clichéd terms.

“We need to enhance a child’s ‘science capital’,” suggested Tom O’Leary, director of education at the Science Museum. “That comprises of their science related knowledge, their skills and experience. It’s what they know, how they think, what they do and who they know.”

“This concept is really important,” says Hayhurst. “There is a crucial role to be played outside the classroom and we need to encourage parents – especially those without a science background – to search out opportunities and to enthuse their child about science and technology. Those children who are going to be interested will pick STEM subjects anyway; what we need to do is make sure that we encourage more children at the earliest stages to study STEM.”

Getting children to interact with technology is crucial and the role of devices like the BBC’s micro:bit or Raspberry Pi can be seen as having an important role, Hayhurst believes.

The micro:bit, backed by a number of technology companies and universities, is intended to inspire digital creativity among young children and to help them develop core skills in science, technology and engineering.

According to Ralph Rivera, director of BBC Digital, micro:bit not only teaches computing, but also ‘encourages kids to exercise their imagination’. “We are putting the means of production in their hands to develop their own ideas,” he said.

The importance of reaching children and parents and adding to their science capital is seeing growth in interaction between industry, local communities and schools. It is an approach that has been embraced by Mathworks, which is located in Cambridge.

“We are in an area that has made a massive investment in technology,” says Hayhurst, “and we want to go into schools, work with communities, build relationships and inspire children to explore opportunities in STEM.”

To that end, Mathworks is collaborating with the Science Museum and local charity Cambridge Science Centre (CSC) to develop programmes that reach out to children and hope to spark their interest in STEM subjects.

Hayhurst believes there is a misconception as to what engineering is and the potential it could provide students.

“Mathworks adopts a number of approaches when it comes to reaching students. At the top end, pre-graduate, we will engage with schools directly and sponsor students; we also work with schools at sixth form level to help re-design the curriculum. But lower down the spectrum, we don’t have enough knowledge or experience, so we engage with organisations like CSC who have experience in reaching students in a meaningful way.”

The collaboration between Mathworks and CSC involves an outreach programme with secondary schools and the wider community. CSC hosts hands-on exhibitions, workshops, shows and talks to get students and the public interested in science.

“We go into a secondary school and organise after-school events and activities,” explains Andy Donnelly, CSC’s head of development. “The secondary school will invite its primary school feeders to attend and it’s a key entry point for us into the wider community. We then organise science pop-up events in local town centres and we’re seeing children bring their parents to share their experiences.

“We work with a variety of providers and want to act as a springboard for other local initiatives by providing a physical space, a platform for other initiatives. Feedback from teachers suggests that children are much more receptive to both informal and formal forms of education after events like these.”

While this is happening in Cambridge, the concept is set to be replicated across the UK, targeting communities and schools that would not necessarily have had access to these types of events. “We want to establish a regional programme over the next three years,” says Donnelly.

“We are looking to increase the public’s ‘science literacy’ through these types of events,” says Hayhurst. “We want to reach parents as much as children; it is important for them to encourage their children to get into science in the future.”

Rolling out this programme beyond Cambridge looks to address an important issue; research carried out by the Social Market Foundation suggests that where children grow up is more likely to determine success or failure.

“Comparisons between generations is a much less significant factor based on exams,” according to the Foundation’s director Emran Mian. “Geography has become a much more significant factor.”

The kinds of projects seen in Cambridge shouldn’t benefit just the lucky few and should not be determined by essentially a lottery of location.

An holistic approach

Building on the projects described above – which are geared primarily to appeal to primary and secondary school children – UKESF targets young adults considering electronics as a career.

“While we are seeing a growing interest in STEM subjects, I believe there has been a real failure to promote the electronics industry and to talk of it as a career. We need to show young people that a career in electronics is dynamic, vital and well paid,” said Edmondson.

“Our aim is to link high-calibre students with companies looking to offer bursaries and practical experience through a combination of mentoring and placements.”

Set up five years ago, UKESF – a collaboration between industry, universities and the public sector – now partners with 16 universities and more than 40 companies, with more than 70 sponsored graduates in the current round.

“We have placed more than 300 students in the past five years,” said Edmondson. “While that is a small number, it is early days and we are ambitious to grow the scheme.”

While efforts are being made to reach out to all parts of the education system – from primary schools to universities – in a bid to make students’ experience of science and technology more imaginative and attractive, the results will not be immediate.

The numbers of students being impacted at the moment are limited and the skills gap remains serious and isn’t getting any smaller.

While there has been a proliferation in STEM initiatives, it is crucial that collaboration typified by the likes of Mathworks, the Science Museum and the Cambridge Science Centre becomes the norm, rather than the exception, and that a more holistic and co-ordinated approach is taken to encourage more students to take up STEM subjects.

Big Bang

At a national level, the Big Bang is a programme of UK-wide events designed to get students more excited about STEM. Through theatre shows, exhibits, interactive workshops and a range of careers information from local and national employers, it has an important role to play in inspiring future generations to take an interest in STEM subjects.

The event looks to celebrate young people in science and engineering and does this by displaying STEM projects they have undertaken and letting them talk directly with engineers and scientists.

The fairs are part of a UK-wide programme led by EngineeringUK, which aims to bring science and engineering ‘to life’ for young people. Last year, it reached more than 120,000 students and teachers, as well as more than 500 employers with 12 Near Me Fairs held in the 2014/15 academic year.

A recent example was the Great Torrington School Big Bang event, attended by more than 20 local employers and more than 600 pupils and students.

One company attending was TDK-Lambda UK, which designed a stand specifically to appeal to primary school age children. “We used the event to engage with children and young adults, start conversations about our products and, ultimately, to get them thinking about a career in electronics,” remarked Anne Sutton, training and development officer. “A word search competition was held featuring the electrical components we use, linking into the sample products on show. Company information packs and information on careers were also available.”