Igniting a passion for STEM in schools

With STEM forming such a vital role in our society – especially as the UK works towards its net-zero ambitions – it is crucial that all young people have access to hands-on STEM experiences at school, writes Dan Powell, head of Neon at EngineeringUK

Engaging young people in STEM subjects at school is an important factor in cultivating a life-long passion for STEM, raising their career aspirations and inspiring them to pursue further education or training opportunities in these sectors.
With STEM forming such a vital role in our society – especially as the UK works towards its ambitions of becoming a net-zero economy by 2030 – it is crucial that all young people have access to hands-on STEM experiences at school. Bringing STEM classroom learning to life enables students to have a good understanding and appreciation of the real-world applications STEM has and where future career aspirations may lie.
When we look at the uptake of STEM subjects, entries into GCSE single science subjects continue to rise at a higher rate than the two per cent increase in the population of 16-year-olds – there has been a four per cent increase in entries into physics, 3.9 per cent increase in chemistry and 3.3 per cent increase in biology entries over one year. However, there are far fewer girls compared to boys taking GCSE subjects such as engineering (13.9 per cent female), computing (20.7 per cent female) and design and technology (29.2 per cent female).
More encouragingly, maths, biology, chemistry and physics remain within the top ten most popular A level subjects to study, with maths being the most taken A level subject. Entries into computing A level have increased by 11.3 per cent in the latest year to 2020/21, continuing its steady upwards trend in popularity.
However, whilst there is a good level of interest in these subjects, there seems to be a disconnect in terms of understanding around real-world applications of STEM and future career options. Our research found that only 55 per cent of school students said they know what engineers do, with 64 per cent saying the same for tech. When looking at the gender divide, only 48 per cent of girls say they know what engineers do, compared to 61 per cent of boys. Worryingly, 60 per cent said they did not know what subjects/qualifications they need to become an engineer.

Know the career options
If we want more young people from all backgrounds to aspire to pursue future careers in STEM, they need to understand what sort of careers are available, be attracted to them, and know the routes in. Taking part in STEM activities at school does make a big difference – boosting young people’s knowledge of and interest in the field of STEM. We found that school students who attend one or more STEM careers activity are 3.5 times more likely to know what people working in engineering do and are 3.4 times more likely to consider a career in engineering.

Improving the environment
Interestingly, 70 per cent of young people said ‘engineers are important for improving the environment’ – something which we know is of interest to the younger generation. Young people who agreed that ‘engineers are important for improving the environment’ were almost seven times more likely to be interested in a career that involves engineering than those who did not agree.
At EngineeringUK we believe that showcasing real-world applications of STEM is vital to young people, but we know for teachers and careers leaders this is just one small part of their day to day. What’s more, with teachers’ workload is at an all-time high, it can of course be difficult to find time to research and organise quality checked extra-curricular activities for students.
However, there are organisations and resources out there that can support schools with this. For example, our free Neon website is designed to help primary and secondary teachers bring STEM to life for their students through outreach opportunities, inspiring careers resources and real-life case studies. Not only does this provide excellent opportunities for students, it also supports schools to achieve Gatsby benchmarks.
We are always looking for ways to make Neon more useful for teachers and careers leaders so we recently launched a collection of new, tailored content. Teachers can get customised content from a wide range of organisations to help get students and parents excited about STEM, find out how to get funding and bursaries for activities, hear from other schools and discover new classroom resources.  
We also know how it is particularly important for young girls to see women role models in STEM, so we have some excellent female case studies on Neon for you to share with your students.

The Big Bang Programme
The Big Bang Programme is another excellent way of engaging your students with STEM. The programme comprises of The Big Bang Fair – which is the UK’s biggest celebration of STEM for young people and is free for schools to attend.     

Students can get inspired by hands-on activities from across the world of STEM, discover exciting career possibilities and connect to inspiring STEM role models. The Big Bang Competition is the UK’s top science and engineering competition for young people, which inspires inquisitive minds to think big, challenge facts, ask questions and invent innovative solutions. There is also the recently introduced Big Bang at School – which support schools to host an inspiring STEM day filled with amazing science and engineering activities, workshops and project work.

Early engagement
While it is important to provide STEM opportunities for both primary and secondary students, we know that engaging students in STEM activities at an early stage of their education can be particularly impactful and create a lasting impression.
Research from ASPIRES shows that young people’s career aspirations remain relatively stable over time, from the age of 10 to 18. Given that career aspirations start during the primary years, it is vital we ensure that all primary schools provide an impactful STEM education that supports all young people as they develop and transition to secondary school with a knowledge of STEM careers available to them.
Primary school gives young people the chance to learn in a practical, hands-on way - of which there are typically less opportunities for at secondary school as the focus on exams ramps up. There are some great opportunities to promote STEM in primary schools through taking a creative and practical approach which can give pupils the chance to explore and get excited about these subjects. This can have a lasting impact on the young people and could influence them to pursue a career in STEM.
The field of STEM is incredibly broad, diverse and forward-facing – so we need to show young people from all backgrounds that whatever they are interested in – be it the environment, games health, sport, food & drink, fashion or space – there is some element of STEM involved. Encouraging your students to take part in an engaging STEM activity could just ignite a lifelong passion and even lead to a rewarding and fulling future career.

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