The growth of STEM

Dr John Newton, Head of Taunton School in Somerset, argues for the increasing importance of STEM subjects

Talking to people outside the world of education, I still find myself explaining that STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. By the end of this new academic year, however, I’m confident that this will have changed.

The increasing importance of STEM subjects is becoming blindingly obvious, as is the need to educate more of our young people to engage with the technological challenges of the world that they will inherit. That world is going to need them.

For example, Africa can feed itself if it gets its logistics and physical communications right: that is an engineering task, not a charity task. India is a better and healthier place not just because of doctors, but because of plumbers: better drains and cleaner water prevent disease.

Currently, the UK produces just 87,000 engineering graduates per year. Industry forecasts suggest that we will need to double that number by 2020. One recent survey reveals that 39% of firms needing employees with STEM skills already have problems recruiting staff. This situation requires our urgent attention: today’s schoolchildren are tomorrow’s engineers.

STEM courses at British universities currently feature more overseas students than UK residents. Contrast that with India, where the number of graduates produced in 2013 exceeded the number of babies born in the USA. The majority of those graduates are skilled in IT. 

Here at Taunton School, our curriculum highlights the interplay between Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – and brings those subjects alive for our students. We are able to keep our teaching relevant and our careers guidance well-informed, thanks to teachers with experience in forensics, the RAF, the nuclear power industry and the oil industry. These are not just subject specialists: they’re genuine enthusiasts.

Crucially, we are seeing greater interest from girls in studying STEM subjects at A-level. Thirty per cent of our science staff are female, and we are signing up for the national Computing for Girls Club this year. Next year, we anticipate that a girls-only Greenpower team will design their own racing car.

To further promote the acceleration of growth in STEM, we now have our first dedicated STEM Co-ordinator – a role which extends beyond ensuring teaching excellence in the STEM subjects, and encompasses the whole of school life. Focusing on the bigger picture is Dr James Penny, already well known in Somerset for his inspiring ‘Flash, Bang, Learn!’ outreach project – showing local primary children that STEM is accessible, fun and important. 

Dr Penny will be ensuring that extra-curricular time is used to develop STEM-specific expertise, and to undertake some great projects in areas such as robotics, app development, rocketry, sustainable energy and motoring through Greenpower.

Our aim is not just to produce the engineers of tomorrow, but also the project managers – those who oversee the building of, say, an oil refinery or a fibre-optic network. Joined-up thinking is the key.

So here’s a challenging thought: perhaps it’s time to stop wasting money on ‘science’ buildings that encompass Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and to think instead in terms of buildings that can house both Bio-Chemistry and STEM subjects. 

The world needs more scientists and engineers, and careers in this field are among the most important and rewarding anyone can have. Progress in the STEM arena will lead to a better educated world with improved control of resources, less disease, malnutrition and extremism, and greater cultural understanding. All of this will flow from STEM. Let’s spread the word.

Dr John Newton is Head of Taunton School. 


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