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The theme of this year’s British Science Week, ‘Innovating for the future’, explored how we can solve today’s problems for a brighter future tomorrow.
The STEM skills gap currently costs the UK economy £6.3bn annually, with women and those from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly under-represented. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM recently found that 65% of the STEM workforce are white men, while women make up only 27%.
The work of engineers impacts all of our daily lives – from brushing our teeth in the morning through to commuting into work – so it seems only right that the sector be more representative of everyone it serves, rather than just a small minority.
There remain stubborn links between socioeconomic disadvantage and lower attainment in STEM subjects, with the Campaign for Science and Engineering highlighting noticeable achievement gaps among students eligible for free school meals in KS2 and KS3.
Unfortunately, a set of common misconceptions continues to surround STEM careers and subjects – ones often formed at a young age, which take root in the classroom and playground and go on on to prevent many from pursuing a STEM career.
At The Smallpeice Trust, we surveyed more than 1,300 parents and found that nearly 40% believed their child wouldn’t consider pursuing a career in engineering. When asked why, some parents cited the perceived ‘grimy’ nature of engineering in failing to appeal to their ‘girly’ daughters who, they believed, would be reluctant to ‘get their hands dirty.’
The UK engineering industry is presently facing a deficit of 2 million people. In schools and at a wider societal level, we can and should help pupils, teachers and families appreciate the wide array of possibilities an engineering career can offer. After all, engineers can work in offices, laboratories, factories, aircraft hangars, oil rigs – even on rockets in outer space!
In our online ‘Girls into Physics’ course, for example, students can discover the building blocks of the universe and learn from the researchers leading the way – many of them women, thus showing girls some real, tangible examples of female astrophysicists, engineers and scientists who aren’t just succeeding in STEM industries, but excelling.
‘Real-world’ learning opportunities give pupils invaluable insight behind the scenes of specific careers and subject areas. Programmes that encourage students to take ownership of a real-life project – whether that be learning how to operate ships and underwater vehicles, or discovering how to design future cities – enable students to experience the exciting world of STEM first-hand.
These opportunities are invaluable for instilling confidence, and for showing girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds that no matter the field, their potential to succeed in them is limitless.
It’s vital that schools continue working alongside charities in in narrowing the gap in our STEM industries, so that students generally – and girls and young people from underprivileged backgrounds in particular – get to explore the exciting career opportunities available to them.
If we can give students from all backgrounds equal access to such opportunities from an early enough age, we can help raise aspirations, and ultimately inspire and equip all students with the skills they’ll need to achieve their full potential in STEM.
Dr Kevin P Stenson is CEO of The Smallpeice Trust; if you’re interested in how The Smallpeice Trust can help you, visit smallpeicetrust.org.uk; should cost be an issue for some students, we may be able to offer course funding – further details are available upon request.
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