“You mean those tiny bumps on my tongue mean I can taste chocolate?”
The girl’s face flushes with excitement as she beckons for the handheld camera to continue examining her taste buds.
It’s mid-August and the summer holidays are in full swing at the @Bristol science centre. Children swarm around the benches and stools that make up the open plan LiveLab area, as they attempt various taste and flavour-themed experiments.
The centre is packed; the noise and energy levels indicate clearly that the interactive science on offer is being wolfed down more enthusiastically than the remains of the strawberry dissection.
However, these scenes contrast sharply with recent reports detailing how a lack of technical expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is threatening to jeopardise economic recovery.
Earlier this year Semta – the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies – forecast that it would be faced with a shortfall of 80,000 workers in the next two years. On top of this, the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) has warned that four out of five manufacturers are experiencing recruitment difficulties, with two thirds claiming that this is because candidates lack technical skills.
This demonstrates a glaring lack of appropriate careers guidance. Traditionally, the most coveted professions by children – astronaut, vet and zookeeper for example – all require a STEM-based education.
Many organisations have mirrored concerns about an impending ‘skills gap’, but what are the underlying issues that have caused it? What’s stopping children from pursuing their natural curiosity into adulthood? And most importantly, what can be done to bridge this gap between taste bud examiner and world-renowned sensory neuroscientist?
A survey by the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre in 2012 found that around 50% of 6-16 year olds thought that STEM subjects were too difficult or boring, and 15% thought they were only relevant to jobs in medicine.
The 2011 Education Act took the responsibility for careers advice away from the independent, Department of Education funded Connexions service and placed the duty solely on schools. Last year a committee of MPs claimed that this was a serious mistake, voicing concerns about “a worrying deterioration in the overall level of provision for young people.”
However with regard to STEM subjects, David Cameron’s administration would keenly point out several ongoing initiatives designed to engage young people in this key area.
The STEM Network, STEMNET, is a UK-wide organisation that aims to promote STEM subjects to children through extracurricular clubs, while also providing teachers with resources that will engage students more effectively in the STEM curriculum. Inspirational role models can have a profound effect on the engagement of children, and the team of 28,000 volunteer STEM ambassadors representing thousands of employers across the UK aim to provide this inspiration. The plan seems to be working, as a recent evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that 82% of teachers thought that STEM ambassador activity improved pupils’ motivation to study STEM subjects further.
‘Your Life’ is a campaign designed to encourage young people to study maths and physics, with the ambitious goal of increasing the number of students studying these two key STEM subjects by 50% in the next 3 years. At its launch on the 12th November, Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan claimed that the campaign will dispel rumours that STEM subjects are “stuffy, boring subjects for people who don’t get outdoors much,” and instead promote them as “the keys to the most cutting edge, fast-paced areas of work.”
In order to succeed, the campaign will need to harness the tremendous sway that social media holds over the youth of today. Some science-based Facebook groups, such as ‘I fucking love science’, regularly produce content for audiences in the millions, providing a ready-made platform for the Your Life campaign to target. The website features quirky videos and articles with titles such as ‘Inventor makes Braille printer from Lego’, however it remains to be seen whether this content can be communicated effectively.
The role of universities in engaging with young people is also of vital importance. Lizzie Morcom is a third year Imperial Chemistry student, and works as a mentor for the university’s STEM Outreach programme.
“Outreach is vitally important for enthusing pupils who don’t necessarily have the access to people in their community to quiz about studying science,” Lizzie says. “The student mentors provide a more attainable vision of a potential future and can relate to the pupil in a way that classroom teachers can’t necessarily.”
It is clear that a coordinated effort involving more targeted careers advice, implementation of government policies using social media and involvement of universities are required in order to get young people excited about the wealth of opportunities that STEM subjects provide.
Centres like @Bristol show that children are born scientists, however the measures described will hopefully ensure that this passion is encouraged, not downtrodden, as children make crucial educational decisions later in life.