Innovation within technology and engineering is a key driver of economic growth in the UK, though the well-documented skills gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is an ongoing concern for government, business leaders and educators alike.
In addition to impacting the rate of economic recovery, the STEM skills gap is equally a very real problem for school pupils, university students and parents, as our young people look to equip themselves with the skills, knowledge and abilities required to enable them to reach their true potential in the 21st century workplace.
But what are the causes of this STEM skills gap? And are the problems and the steps needed to address them the responsibility of parents, educators, government or business?
These were the key questions raised and the issues debated around STEM at a lively and insightful panel discussion chaired by renowned technologist Dr Sue Black and hosted by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) during IP EXPO Europe 2016. Panellists included TV personalities Maggie Philbin and Johnny Ball (both well-known for their work popularising science, technology and maths), Professor Will Stewart, the Vice President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and Marc Waters, HPE’s newly appointed Managing Director for the UK and Ireland.
The current STEM skills gap within education is a hotly debated issue, yet the numbers working in STEM are still going down. Is the curriculum at fault? Or is this part of a wider misperception amongst young people and their parents about potential careers in engineering and technology?
“The curriculum is a total mess,” says Johnny Ball, “but engineering is beyond the curriculum, anyway. And that’s where the kids would like to be. To attract kids to STEM subjects, you’ve always got to treat children two years older than they actually are. You’ve got to stretch the boundaries. And the curriculum doesn’t do that, at all.”
Ball passionately believes in the need for a curriculum that gives kids more power and thinks the current maths curriculum is too heavily focused on numeracy (at primary level) and on statistics (at secondary level).
In his opinion, the curriculum is only there to test teachers and to test schools. “It is nothing to do with children,” he says, “and that’s what is wrong. If you do any STEM efforts, you take the kids out of the box. You have to entertain them and engage them and attract their attention. You don’t send them to sleep!
“The basis of technology and engineering has always been hands on. And kids love to get hands on. They like to get involved. But you have to show them the way and show them the basis of these ideas. You set projects that are a little beyond them, but you give them the clues to get them there. And that is education and that is how you move forward.”
All the panellists agree on the value of project-based learning. “You also have the same thing with geometry,” says the IET’s Professor Will Stewart, “because it’s a puzzle. And the kids love puzzles.”
On a recent Mumsnet-sponsored Twitter chat, answering questions that kids had asked their confused parents, the IET VP had been asked: “Why doesn’t the moon fall down?”
To which he had answered “Well, it does, but it’s moving so fast sideways that it falls past us.” Which is essentially correct!
“It’s important to try to answer difficult questions,” Stewart adds, “and it’s also important for kids to attempt to do things that are difficult. The whole business of selling things to children is a big deal. The biggest deal is women. Only nine per cent of engineers are women. I think they maybe have the wrong idea of what engineering is.”
Attracting youngsters, girls in particular, is a massive and difficult problem. How might we allow more girls to understand that they could be brilliant engineers?
“I think that it is by giving them the opportunity to be engineers,” says Maggie Philbin, who, in her role as leader of TeenTech, has been working at the sharp end of this.
“No statistics – for example, telling me that if we had X number more women working in engineering and technology that the UK will be better off by £60 billion – are going to convince me to be an engineer. That isn’t enough. I have to actually feel that I am really enjoying being an engineer and I want to do it. It’s those opportunities. So we need to find ways of giving students that currently don’t have those opportunities the chance to make discoveries.”
Like Ball, Philbin is critical of the school curriculum, “because often the curriculum doesn’t allow students to really feel like they are making discoveries. So for me, it all comes back to self-directed project-based learning. Where it is amazing what students will do.
“There are two approaches needed. Bottom-up, which is what TeenTech does, and then top-down.”
One thing all the panellists can agree on is that, in order to find viable solutions to the STEM skills crisis, the key stakeholder groups – business, government, educators, parents and other influencers – really need to come together.
“From a business standpoint, creating opportunity and promoting that opportunity to young people to create the demand for the skills is really important,” explains HPE’s UKI MD, Marc Waters. “And to do that more effectively alongside the government, as this is definitely an area in which government could listen more to business on.”
In particular, Waters wants to see government do more to create the right perception around skills-based education.
“The government spent a lot of time creating a perception that degree-based education was the be-all and end-all. And children were driven towards that. Without creating the right profile for skills.
“The Degree Apprenticeship, for example, is a great initiative, but we need to see a better implementation of the apprenticeship level. Which is a great opportunity to see the government listen to business about how we can do more with that, because it is in businesses’ interest to attract young people via skills-based learning and to create apprenticeships.”
Overall, there is a clear agreement that there are key roles to play for all the various groups of stakeholders mentioned above.
“We have a very good opportunity here,” notes Waters. “And the narrative from the government is really positive. It is great to see skills right at the top of the Chancellor’s agenda. Now to see the action, I think.”