Getting to the root of STEM education

Maggie Philbin explores STEM opportunities in schools and the career possibilities we should be making pupils aware of.

My daughter has just moved to San Francisco to take on an exciting and demanding new role in her company. She’s well paid, highly valued and loves her job.

I’m obviously incredibly proud to have a daughter doing so well in the tech industry but it’s no thanks to any career advice she received from school (or from me for that matter). In fact, Rose says nothing she experienced in her formal learning environment helped her understand what working in technology might actually mean.

Rose was one of the lucky ones who had a chance opportunity to understand why she might enjoy working in that environment. Before then, the opportunities had been completely invisible and, as a result, of absolutely no interest to her.

Working in science or technology is no longer a niche choice.

Digital and technical skills cut across all workplaces and we need to help students understand that studying subjects like engineering, physics or computer science can be springboards into every industry and into well paid jobs – whether you are working in the city, in a nuclear power plant or for a broadcaster.

It seems quite mad that at a time when technology is disrupting the way we do everything – from finding partners to finding planets – that in many schools STEM subjects still struggle to escape the shackles of being perceived as dull, dry, boring, and worst of all – for old men in lab coats. Educators have a duty to break down preconceptions and provide young people with a better picture of what the world of STEM really looks like and how they could play a very active and rewarding part in it.

Schools can’t do this on their own
Contemporary industries are diverse, fast moving and complicated, but schools can create relationships with companies and organisations who can provide that fresh thinking – not only about possible careers but for the different routes into them. They can share first-hand information about the real qualities which companies seek out and value – bold, clever thinkers, good communicators, creativity, and attention to detail. Qualities that might not always surface in formal examinations but which can come to the fore when students work on real world projects, in teams.

Gaining new skills is important but beyond this, there are three things young people need in order to reach their potential in STEM subjects and go on to have successful careers in these fields. These are an understanding of the opportunities out there, an awareness of and belief in their own potential, and the opportunity to create meaningful connections with people already working in fast-paced and exciting tech industries. Simply put, these things are not in place for every student, only for a fortunate few.

Young people don’t get enough chances to explore how far they can go with STEM subjects, or the kind of careers that are up for grabs. As such it’s the job of school leaders and teachers to put these stepping stones in place in order for their pupils to achieve.

Career choices
There are well-lit pathways for young people who want to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and police officers – but those into tech and applied science are sometimes more oblique. For instance, some might assume that you need maths and computer science to succeed in cyber security, but in reality there are a broad range of opportunities for those who demonstrate strategic thinking with their aptitude for computer games or who are good at languages, recognising patterns or enjoy taking things apart.

The number of different careers that STEM can open up really are vast. From cyber security to data analytics, digital marketing to nanotechnology, robotics to environmental engineering. Manufacturing and aerospace production are earmarked as two of the fastest growing sectors in the UK, and the opportunities for STEM careers here are enormous. What’s more, we’re seeing huge leaps in advances of technology in fields such as healthcare, marketing, and financial services. In short, STEM subjects feed into some of the fastest-growing and lucrative industries and the next generation need to be given clearer career paths – something that must start at school.

Our pupils must be armed with the skills, confidence and knowledge to join these rapidly-changing fields and put their own stamp on them.

Changing perceptions
We need to make the opportunities in STEM visible to young people, ensuring it is not just the lucky few that stumble on chance opportunities to realise a fulfilling and rewarding career.
STEM should not exist in siloes within schools; it should permeate all subjects and be the common thread woven throughout a multitude of learning experiences. For far too long we’ve actively encouraged students to see themselves as ‘arty’ or ‘sciency’.

Through my experience with TeenTech, I have seen the transformative effect of a hands-on, project-based approach on students. It enables teachers to surface latent skills that can act as an impetus for students to engage in STEM subjects within the classroom. It can also spark an interest which leads to self‑directed learning outside the classroom as students become motivated by turning their ideas into viable business propositions, in competitions such as the TeenTech Awards.

With increasing pressure on schools to track student progression and varying access to work experience or careers information, advice and guidance, the relationships between schools and businesses are key.

Through working collaboratively to support teaching professionals deliver engaging projects with a real world context, employers can build the pipeline of talent required within STEM industries today.

Making it fun for all ages
I believe interventions need to start at a young age to nurture the natural creativity, curiosity and lateral thinking of young minds, often lost as they progress through the education system. Through investing time and energy in STEM subjects we can also promote good and active citizenship in our young people, regardless of their future career choices.

We have recently launched the TeenTech City of Tomorrow programme for young people aged 10-12, where we ask three key questions - how will we live, work and play in the future?

We want young people to consider the world they want to live in, paying attention to both physical and virtual spaces and interactions through the Internet of Things. Young people construct their cities while exploring key concepts and expressing their individual and collective vision for the future. We designed this programme to sit across a number of curriculum areas. I believe adopting a cross curricula approach supports the holistic understanding required to deepen learning of core STEM principles.

A philosophy I hold dear and at the core of the work I have done with TeenTech is that young people deserve a platform for their ideas, which time and again I see compete in real world environments, standing on their own merit and not constrained by age. We are passionate about empowering young people to understand and protect their ideas and support them to make connections to develop their ideas from concept to creation. In the past we’ve had pupils dream up everything from ‘Indicate’ – a new technology for helping cyclists to indicate more safely and clearly which is being developed with the young students by Maplin, to the ‘E-Water tap,’ a tap programmed by keen students in Newbury to produce safe drinking water in developing countries and which secured £100,000 investment. The students were in the Gambia in May watching their project become reality.

What opportunities lie ahead?
During my time on Tomorrows World I had the enviable task of previewing the kind of technology we now take for granted, such as the mobile phone, the digital camera and the sat nav. I believe the pace of technology today makes it almost impossible to map out every opportunity that will be available to young people when they transition from education to employment. However I believe we absolutely have a duty to prepare young people for the modern workplace, equipping them with the core skills, understanding and aptitude, to not only survive but to succeed in an increasingly digital world.

We should aspire to connect business and education through exciting STEM projects and hands on learning opportunities throughout a young persons’ journey in education. We cannot expect teachers to shoulder the burden of bringing industry into the classroom on their own. Each business in STEM has a responsibility to invest in their future workforce by providing the expertise, role models and inspiration to capture the imaginations and spark the interest of young people.

TeenTech is just one of many organisations working to help make those connections and support both education and industry build meaningful and fruitful relationships.

Think Tech – Think Careers
We often fall into the trap of traditional qualification frameworks determining which career paths young people are most suited too. I have experienced first-hand the difficulty young people have in accessing information about quality apprenticeships. There is now, more than ever, a huge amount of opportunity for young people to pursue rewarding careers in STEM and even though we may understand the university route because that was our own experience, it’s very important to develop our understanding so we can showcase other routes. I always remember the O2 apprentice who only found out about his digital apprenticeship when he renewed his mobile phone.

Our research shows parents are a major influencer on career choices and so it’s important to make sure they are very much part of the discussion. Parents are often astonished when they realise companies such as Airbus, BBC, National Grid and GCHQ offer high quality apprenticeships which remove the burden of university fees and lead to great careers.

Overall, there’s a lot of untapped talent being lost in kids who have dismissed a career in tech, simply because they don’t consider it an exciting or viable career option or self‑eliminated because they think it will be ‘too hard’. At TeenTech, we reach out to these young people, asking if they are interested in gaming, social media, or being inventive, and that’s why they step forward to take part in the programme working on projects to make life ‘better, simpler and easier’ using science and technology.

Once engaged they become very passionate evangelists within their schools. As one girl said: “It made me realise that technology was all about people.”

The popularity of the scheme proves that there certainly is an appetite out there, and the resounding success of our participants, especially those who might have been struggling academically, shows the true extent of young people’s capabilities. It’s now more important than ever for schools to really highlight the benefits of STEM subjects and offer new and inventive ways to help students see just how relevant they are to every aspect of their lives.

One teenager who attended one of our cyber security workshops said it was the first time she’d ever understood how she could use maths or physics outside the classroom. We need to seize every opportunity to help young people understand how they can apply their learning and see that the workplace of the future will welcome their creativity, bold thinking and leadership skills just as much if not more than exam grades.

Maggie Philbin founded TeenTech, running initiatives with a supporting Award scheme to help young teenagers see the wide range of career possibilities in science, engineering and technology, working collaboratively with companies, universities, business organisations and education business partnerships.

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