Preparing for the future: inspiring students to study STEM

Students, and their parents, are looking ahead to future employment and career opportunities. There have been exciting developments in the world of work, particularly in growth sectors like science, engineering and digital, and employers are keen to engage with potential talent at an early stage.

Preparing for the future: Vinehall pupils on Hastings Pier

Vinehall School

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With science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects of increasing importance in a competitive world, there are lots of initiatives to spark the imagination of the future workforce, whether they are seeking a vocational career path or a more academic one.Employers in a range of sectors are seeking to benefit the economy and young people by offering everything from bursaries and prize money to education and training programmes and meaningful work experience.This approach is very much in line with the UK government’s agenda. In January 2017, it published its Industrial Strategy Green Paper with two areas of focus being an investment in science, research and innovation and ‘developing skills’. The paper said, “We must become a more innovative economy and do more to commercialise our world leading science base to drive growth across the UK.”With the government promising an additional £2 billion per year investment for research and development by 2020–2021, its commitment to the sector is clear. 

The space sector

In the UK, the vibrant space sector is keen to attract young talent. Now worth more than £13.7 billion a year, it directly supports more than 38,500 jobs and has trebled in size in real terms since 2000. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has set out an ambitious target to grow the industry to £40 billion in 2030.Key players include well-established giants such as Astrium, the space subsidiary of aerospace and defence company EADS, Inmarsat, the telecommunications and satellite company, and Airbus Defence and Space. These are just the types of organisation that will be keen to employ young people with science and maths qualifications, whatever academic or vocational route they take.Katherine Courtney, chief executive of the UKSA, said that there was no doubt that Tim Peake – the astronaut who, between 2015 and 2016 spent 186 days working on the International Space Station as part of a collaboration between the UKSA and the European Space Agency (ESA) – had inspired children. She hoped his expedition and subsequent role as a space ambassador would help prompt them to start down a path that could lead them to careers requiring knowledge of STEM subjects.Explained Ms Courtney, “Being able to do those big collaborative missions, which we would not be able to afford on our own, not only gives us the opportunity to do amazing space science, but also means that UK-based space companies can participate in those missions and can win contracts through participation in the European Space Agency.”But it is not just missions to space that are the focus of the UKSA, Britain produces about a quarter of the world’s large communication satellites in an industry worth almost £14 billion a year and employing nearly 40,000 people. The UK just lacks the capability to launch craft into space, but that is set to change as the government has revealed plans to create spaceports that would allow small satellites to be launched even before 2020.There are also many space-industry spin-offs, which benefit the business and commercial world, from research and development to technological advances.“So many of the things we take for granted every day are reliant on space: TV, broadband, mobile phones, satnavs – they’re all underpinned by space systems and assets,” said Ms Courtney.Bringing science to life in this way helps children to see how studying a STEM subject might be relevant to them in a future career and many businesses and organisations are forging partnerships with schools and education providers in order to do this.

Inspiring students and teachers

One organisation seeking to do just this is the National Space Academy, which aims to use the inspirational context of space to engage children in science and maths. The agency is funded through 15 organisations and companies, including the UKSA, ESA, Airbus and Rolls-Royce.It has worked with over 20,000 students, 4,000 teachers, and hundreds of university students and early-career space professionals since its launch in 2011. Its 35-plus science teachers, project scientists and engineers train teachers to use its methodologies to reach hundreds of students per teacher. It also provides masterclasses for secondary-school and college students.The Academy established the UK’s first full-time course for students in space engineering, was instrumental in the development of the UK’s first state schools with space contexts embedded throughout the curriculum (space studio schools) and co-led the development of the national higher apprenticeship programme for the space sector.The programme has had a high level of success with more than 80 per cent of space engineering alumni going on to degree courses in physics or engineering, or to industry apprenticeships in engineering.

Forging business and school partnerships

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is the UK’s largest automotive manufacturer. Over the past five years, it has employed more than 20,000 people in the UK, taking its workforce to 42,000.In collaboration with schools and colleges, JLR’s Inspiring Tomorrow’s Engineers (ITE) programme promotes learning and engagement in STEM subjects, to encourage young people to consider careers in engineering and manufacturing. Key elements of the programme include dedicated education centres in areas close to JLR facilities, imaginative projects for school pupils, and a wide variety of work experience opportunities.JLR’s engineering director, Nick Rogers, said, “We firmly believe that our future prosperity lies in innovation, engineering and the application of science. We are also convinced they play a crucial role in the UK’s global competitiveness.“It is critical to us that the UK maintains a strong focus on the teaching and nurturing of science. I believe the challenges the car industry faces over the next 20 years make it the best time for almost a century to be an automotive engineer.”Another UK automotive manufacturer, Rolls-Royce, acknowledges that a strong future talent pipeline is critical to its future and has set itself the target of reaching 6 million students by 2020 through its STEM education outreach programmes and activities.It has partnerships with teaching and engineering bodies and also the Scouts association and Girlguiding UK where it sponsors badges and awards. In 2004 it founded the Rolls-Royce Science Prize, a teaching award that aims to inspire the highest quality teaching in science and maths. It is also a partner of Project Enthuse, which invests in the continuing professional development of teachers and the company is one of the largest providers of engineering work experience in the UK.Founded in 2008, TeenTech runs events across the country alongside an annual award scheme to help teenagers to see the wide range of career possibilities available in science, engineering and technology. Its sponsors include Microsoft, Bloomberg, P&G and GSK. Andy Wilson, chair and non-executive director of TeenTech explained how TeenTech is helping to enthuse children about STEM subjects, “The UK needs the best talent to help us to innovate and create new technologies and products for the future. TeenTech’s unique blend of showcase events and a challenging awards competition helps to inspire children about careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. The diverse challenges that TeenTech sets enable children to develop their own ideas to solve problems from a range of sectors, helping them to learn what it takes to develop, invent and prototype solutions.”The projects set are indeed challenging. Open to students aged between 11 and 19, pupils work in groups of up to three and choose a challenge from 20 of the set categories. This year sees several new categories including a category focussed on the future of rail.The Awards have proven particularly successful in encouraging students to study STEM subjects. One school has seen the number of students choosing Design and Technology increase by 300 per cent over five years of participation, whilst another saw the numbers of girls choosing GCSE Physics more than double in three years.Another company seeking to engage children in STEM is global energy company, Shell. It currently has STEM programmes in 16 countries, including the USA, UK, Nigeria and the Netherlands. Initiatives include Tomorrow’s Engineers Energy Quest, which helps students to explore the STEM curriculum in a fun way through hands-on activities, careers information and stories from real engineers. This is followed by a school competition, The Bright Ideas Challenge, which asks students to imagine creative ideas for how cities of the future might be powered. The company has invested a further £1 million in the project as it aims to reach 80,000 students over the next three years.It is also aiming to inspire girls in STEM careers with its Girls in Energy programme – a one-year course for 14–16 year olds in Scotland, which delivers weekly lessons and field visits.

The role of schools in sparking an interest

But it is not just businesses that are pushing the STEM agenda; schools are starting to see an encouraging shift in attitude, especially in the higher years. Southbank International School, a coeducational IB World School for pupils aged 3–18 in London will be introducing the IB Diploma Programme in Design Technology in 2018 due to student interest and the popularity of applications for STEM-related courses at university level.It has seen many students go on to successful STEM-related careers. These include George Frodsham, founder of MediSieve a drug-free malaria treatment and Thomas Gizbert, a data scientist at Facebook.

Reinforcing maths and digital skills­­

Global consultancy, Deloitte, is also channelling investment into initiatives that support the talent of the future.September 2016 saw the launch of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, which aims to tackle digital-skills shortages. Dean and co-founder Tom Fogden was a maths teacher who went on to join Deloitte’s Consulting practice, working on a variety of technology and education projects.In autumn 2016, 150 students were enrolled in the college’s sixth form and higher-level apprenticeships, which include a foundation degree in computer sciences.“Within five years,” said Tom Fogden, “Ada’s London campus will have educated 5,000 students, with a second campus planned in the north west of England. We want the college to use digital skills as a tool for social mobility, and, by 2021, 40 per cent of the students will be women and 50 per cent will have been eligible for free school meals.”Mr Fogden explained that Deloitte had been very supportive throughout and had provided the college with a Deloitte Digital secondee for nine months.As the Royal Academy of Engineering predicts a shortfall of 200,000 qualified engineers by 2020, initiatives that engage young people in STEM subjects are vital in securing a bright future for both the workforce of the future and the UK economy. Only a small snapshot of employer–school initiatives in the UK has been provided here, but it is encouraging to see companies recognising the need to invest in nurturing the talent of the future.
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