30 August 2017 | By Dr Nicola Combe Community

Getting students into STEM

Too many teachers don’t feel confident in their understanding of STEM careers. Businesses need to help

With August the month of exam results, students up and down the country face the decision about what to do next. Yet still too few are opting for a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

In the UK we need more engineers and people with technical skills. More than 250,000 skilled people are needed each year to meet current demand – and that demand is growing. Yet teachers don’t feel adequately equipped to recommend STEM subjects to their pupils.

In a recent nationwide survey commissioned by Centrica, nearly a third of teachers said they did not feel adequately informed about all the different options that are available to students. Almost a quarter confessed they did not feel confident in their understanding of careers in STEM, despite the widely reported skills shortage.

This is important when you consider that the same survey revealed that nine in ten students said they were influenced by teachers when it came to deciding what to do after leaving school.

The data is even less encouraging when it comes to getting younger girls into STEM subjects. Nearly a quarter of all teachers surveyed said they did not feel confident or know if job opportunities exist for girls going into STEM careers. By the same token, more than a quarter of girls said that STEM careers were not for them, versus 14 per cent of boys. It was a shock to me that nearly half of all students surveyed could not think of any female role models in STEM.

According to the Institute of Engineering and Technology, only nine per cent of engineers are women. But history shows that women can make great scientists and engineers.

Multi-skilled people are needed: not just people who code, but those who understand how their products fit into the world around them. We also need people who can solve problems creatively, communicate their ideas clearly and help to build products.

From my experience the best teams are diverse, not only in terms of gender but also through different experiences, backgrounds and cultures. Having women at the table, designing solutions, is vital in making sure the technologies we develop work for a wide range of people.

Supporting change

The pace of change within the tech industry is rapid. Not too long ago, when I was at university, apps didn’t even exist! The speed of innovation could be one of the reasons why it is challenging for teachers to recommend STEM careers.

At Centrica we are trying to support teachers to better understand engineering and technology career opportunities. We need to encourage young people to consider these careers by supporting teachers, providing support materials to use in and out of the classroom, and being visible as role models.

Personally I use my volunteer days to go into primary schools and showcase what an engineering and tech career involves. Some of these children may never have met an engineer; for them to see that they could be inventing – or building – the future is hugely rewarding.

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