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4 ways to inspire creative thinkers to pursue STEM subjects

Last updated:
13th December 2019

Encouraging innovation and invention amongst students is the way to build a more diverse technology sector for the future, argues Joysy John…

Currently, only one and a half per cent of the school-age population across England have access to schemes that focus on providing young people with the opportunity to participate in innovation and invention. Women and those from lower income backgrounds are also much less likely to be represented in STEM careers.

It’s a fact that Britain’s technology sector has a worrying lack of diversity amongst its senior leadership, with less than nine per cent of leaders coming from a minority background and only 12.6% of board members being female. If groups of young people aren’t accessing and engaging with STEM and innovation programmes during school, this lack of diversity is only going to grow.

At Nesta Challenges, we run prizes to stimulate innovation and learning, specifically amongst those from under-represented groups. Our Longitude Explorer Prize, which is currently in its third year, has challenged 11-16 year olds across the UK to develop innovative, practical solutions to society’s biggest issues using tech and artificial intelligence. The prize offers positive intervention, enabling students to engage with STEM in creative ways. Look out for the semi-finalists being announced this month.

We’ve seen some fascinating ideas developed through previous years of the Prize. Including our 2015 winners, who developed an app to help charities coordinate the logistics of supporting vulnerable people. Our 2017 winners created a wearable device for people on the autistic spectrum, which changes colour to reflect the emotions of its wearer, allowing teachers to be alerted to the anxiety levels of their students without verbal communication. Giving young people the freedom to think differently about technology within school can stand them in good stead for future employment.

Our Longitude Explorer Prize, and accompanying resources, has been created as a creative tool for teachers and youth groups to easily engage their young people, developing their entrepreneurial skills and inspiring the next tech innovators of the future. Taken from our Prize resources, here are four ways to inspire student’s creativity in STEM:

1. Make it relevant to their every day
Young people care more about societal issues than ever before – think Greta Thunberg and the recent rise in youth activism. Solving these issues requires the freedom to think differently and to problem solve in new ways, which STEM subjects can unlock.

Ask young people what’s concerning them at the moment and discuss with them how they could use technology to overcome these issues

2. Inspire storytelling
Encourage students to tell a story about something they are working on, for example, this could be a maths equation or a science experiment. Get them to imagine they are a character in the story. What would the name of the character be? What can and can’t they do? Who might they need to help them overcome the issue? Get them to think about what tools they will need to make change happen.

3. Challenge, to improve ideas
Creative thinking comes out of a trusted and open environment. Ask your students open-ended questions about their story. Challenge them to challenge themselves and identify potential holes in their ideas so they can improve them further. Observation and conversations will open their eyes to glitches and how they can be solved.

4. Use your surroundings
You can bring out creativity through everyday objects, like the tech that your students already use. Encourage them to think about how an interactive whiteboard was made or what impacted on the design of a keyboard or an iPhone. How could they apply this to the problem they identified through their stories?

Innovation is crucial to help address the major societal transformations we are experiencing – from the global shift to clean growth, to ageing populations; and from the revolution in AI and data to how people, goods and services will move in the future and young people are crucial to ensuring these changes happen in the most inclusive way possible.

If you would like access to more resources to inspire creativity in STEM, head to Nesta Challenge’s Longitude Explorer Prize website: longitudeexplorer.challenges.org/resources

Joysy John is director of education at Nesta.

Demonstrating the impact of inspiring engagement with tech from a young age
The previous winner of the Longitude Explorer Prize, Rendcomb College, is a demonstration of the success that inspiring STEM in schools can have:

  • A group of girls at Rendcomb College used their creativity to develop an app called Displaced which supports charities by collating live data on homeless people and refugees
  • The winning school has gone on to use their prize winnings to invest in inspiring innovation at the school by:
  • Joining an engineering in schools scheme
  • Hosting Women in STEM events
  • Redeveloping their IT room so it’s more hands-on with a ‘maker bench’ where students are encouraged to adapt the kit and create their own items
  • Rendcomb College have seen uptake in STEM subjects at GCSE and A level, including the first female students opting for Computer Science
  • Two out of the three girls on the winning team are now studying STEM subjects at university