STEM experiences are the key to attracting and maintaining student interest

By: Mike Hollinshead - iFLY Manchester

According to research carried out by the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry, UK STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates earn nearly 20% more than their peers. In the study, researchers analysed salaries of 42,500 entry-level positions from more than 770 organisations across the United Kingdom. Sampling 25 jobs across multiple industries the survey revealed that the average university graduate can expect to earn £26,023 in their first full-time job.  However, those entering a role in a STEM career, such as a role in software development or engineering, are likely to see their pay packets increased by 19% to £30,973 and 17% to £30,370 respectively, making them the highest paid entry roles in the country. 

Yet despite the financial attractions, research by the Social Market Foundation shows that the UK risks a STEM labour shortage of half a million by 2023. Over half a million job openings in science, research, engineering and technology over the next six years will need to be filled to replace the growing number of retiring workers, according to the research commissioned by EDF Energy.  An additional 142,000 new STEM-related jobs will also be created, leading to concerns that there are not enough candidates to fill the shortfall.

So, why, when a career in STEM has such great job security and above average salary, are young people giving them the cold shoulder?

One idea is that “children form ideas of “suitable” careers at a very young age, and parents, teachers and employers are not getting to them early enough. Because of this, young children might already be turned off to a career in STEM before they even reach secondary school” says Ann Watson Chief Exec of the not-for-profit employer-led skills organisation SEMTA. She carries on to say “We need to be starting much earlier. We need children of primary-school age to be given the opportunity to see what modern cutting-edge engineering looks like”.

There is also an argument that the UK’s obsession with SATS and School league tables really isn’t helping matters. According to the Primary Assessment report by the Parliamentary Education Committee, many teachers reported ‘teaching to the test’, which caused a narrowing of the curriculum and increased pressure. The committee felt that many of the negative effects of assessment were in fact, caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself. But what does this actually mean? Well, unfortunately, it means pupils are spending more and more time sat at their desks with their head buried in books and taking tests, rather than getting out of the classroom and experiencing education in real world situations.

The 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2017) places the UK just inside the top 20% of countries for Science and around the middle for Maths, but we still have a way to go if we are going to give top-of-the-table Japan a run for its money. If we want more pupils to follow a career in STEM and help fill the impending STEM labour shortage, we have to do more than just fill their heads with facts, figures and formulae. Pupils need to be able to immerse themselves in science, be able to touch it and feel it and get excited about it. Not just read about it in a book.

When we began developing our STEM workshops we consulted with teachers and asked them what they wanted. They told us how important it was for kids to see STEM in action. We took their advice. When they visit iFLY, pupils learn about the physics of skydiving, how the wind tunnel works, surface area, gravity, velocity, and acceleration; they conduct experiments, and test their theories. In short, they get a truly active learning experience.

It’s awesome to see people getting so excited about STEM, but for pupils to be excited about learning, education needs to get away from the ‘teach to test’ culture and classroom only instruction. If we can bring more excitement and connection to STEM, then there’s just a chance we can prevent fears of a STEM labour shortage becoming a reality.