We’re all familiar with reports that UK industries are facing a skills shortage because young people are reluctant to study STEM subjects at a higher level.
In the coming years, these four disciplines will prove crucial in tackling the major challenges we now face, whether it be future-proofing transport infrastructure, caring for older people or feeding the world’s growing population. Talented computer scientists and mathematicians will also find plenty of opportunities for a rewarding career in data analytics or business intelligence, as these markets continue to flourish.
Encouragingly, it seems that the focus on STEM education over the past few years is now delivering results. Figures show that the number of students choosing these subjects as a first degree jumped by 3.2% in 2015/16 compared to the previous academic year. Since 2007/08, this has increased by a staggering 32% – a remarkable accomplishment in such a short period of time.
Academic teaching, of course, is essential in nurturing talent, but what is also needed is a spark – the proverbial light-bulb moment – when pupils see a real-world application for the formulae they are learning or the code they write.
Collaboration is key and over the years, we have seen teams working closely with STEM ambassadors, professors and industry leaders
One way to achieve this is to take young people out of the classroom by encouraging them to take part in STEM competitions, which take place at a regional, national and international level.
Having witnessed teams of our own pupils at work during these competitions, I am always struck by just how quickly they can bring their academic, analytical, creative and interpersonal skills together to solve a problem. Collaboration is key and over the years, we have seen teams working closely with STEM ambassadors, sixth formers, charities, professors and industry leaders.
For many, this commitment has brought them remarkable success in competitions. We are immensely proud of Sankha Kahagala-Gamage and David Bernstein, both 16, who were named UK Young Engineer of the Year 2017 after designing a vest that alerts epilepsy sufferers to a fit up to eight minutes before it happens.
The win means that Sankha and David will now demonstrate the product at the European Young Scientist Fair in Estonia and the China Adolescents Science and Technology Innovation Contest, where they will be the first team ever to represent the UK.
Under-representation of women in sectors like technology and engineering remains a huge problem, but STEM competitions can be the catalyst for girls to embark on careers in these fields.
At the Teentech Awards, two teams from the girls-only Loughborough High School were crowned winners in two categories for their concepts. The first of these, created by Team Safecase, was a phone case with added security features to safeguard young women in the event of an attack. A simple but effective tool, it has an alarm, lights, a pepper spray nozzle and is linked to an app that calls for help and records evidence.
Our second winner, Team ConductOvest, came up with the idea of a lightweight jacket for train conductors that connects to an app and raises the alarm in an emergency situation, including terrorist incidents.
While awards are always welcome, it is the lessons learned during the course of the project that are most valuable. These competitions also act as a springboard into industry, helping young people to forge connections and explore career options. On the back of their success, some of our students have been in talks with companies about developing their ideas even further.
It all comes down to ensuring students have a strong foundation in technical and academic principles, fuelled by the imagination to come up with innovative solutions. After all, as Einstein once said: “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.”