STEM aspirations; reframe the narrative – FE News

The UK Government has recently revamped its Government Science & Engineering (GSE) strategy (July 2021), which aims to ensure that every aspect of government is supported by a wide range of people and skills. This program recognizes the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and aims to create a career path from entry-level to highly influential and effective scientists and engineers for a diverse group of talents.

At the start of National Careers Week in March 2022, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Science Adviser, tweeted about this new STEM strategy and the government’s commitment to integrating science into all aspects of government policy, from climate change to transportation. He wants to see more scientists and engineers in leadership positions to help champion the value of science and engineering.

Having him as a STEM champion sparked something in our thinking. He is the only figure we have seen on television throughout the pandemic that has led the nation out of a critical period and into a safer country. We believe his contribution to solving a life-threatening problem gives STEM a new purpose. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not just subjects to be studied in school and college; they should be seen as solutions to future societal problems, including climate change and sustainable economies.

Young people have taken the lead in advocating for the importance of climate change through the climate strikes that have taken place across the country in recent years. This led us to think that we should reframe the STEM narrative to focus on how young people can approach these topics to influence policy and bring fundamental change to their communities, their country and the world. We should provide them with more authentic examples of what they can do and the changes they can bring to global issues, including the climate crisis; other examples like Sir Patrick’s advocacy for STEM at the start of a career campaign. We should seize the moment and change the stories we tell our younger generations; putting them, their voice, their creative ideas and their problem-solving skills at the forefront of future innovations. We need to develop them to be the STEM leaders of tomorrow and let them see who and what they can become and expand their aspirations.

Sir Patrick and hundreds of other medical scientists have worked so hard to get us out of the pandemic safely and have truly showcased the innovation and change we can bring about on a societal level through medical science. We need this message at the heart of career interventions aimed at embedding STEM capital and changing perceptions and attitudes.

We have no shortage of statistics telling us how vital STEM skills are to a greener economy and to our competitive advantage. More STEM-focused metropolitan economies perform well on a wide variety of economic indicators, from innovation to employment. Job growth, employment rates, patents, wages and exports are all higher in more STEM-focused economies.[3] And this strong evidence base has led to hundreds of initiatives across the country to spark the aspiration of our young people to study and pursue careers in STEM. A remarkable job has been done by the leaders of the third sector to resolve the issue of access and aspiration.

Looking at today’s numbers, science participation and engagement has improved overall, but on closer inspection, there are still disparities in participation. According to UCAS, more young people are studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at university than ever before.[4] Additionally, between 2010 and 2020, the number of women accepted into full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 49%. Over the same 10-year period, the number of UK 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds accepted into full-time undergraduate STEM courses increased by 79%. But a topic-by-topic approach reveals a very different picture.

The last decade has certainly seen changes, but changes that are slowing down. Subjects have either remained at the same level or have seen an increase in the number of female students and not a balanced growth between girls and boys, regardless of their socio-economic background [5]. It is encouraging to see this movement, but it is clear that more needs to be done in order to encourage a diverse set of students into our future STEM workforce, especially as the most vulnerable communities are those who will be the most affected by the climate crisis and other natural disasters. One can’t help but wonder why, despite all the effort and investment made to engage young people in STEM subjects and STEM careers, we still haven’t fulfilled our mission?

Recently, researchers from the UCL Institute of Education have developed the concept of scientific capital; Scientific capital encompasses all of an individual’s scientific resources – their attitudes and understanding of science, their scientific interests and activities, and their social contacts. The research behind this conceptual framework indicates that there are different layers to developing young people’s science capital. However, two of the dimensions highlight the discussion in this article.

When young people don’t see science as relevant to their daily lives, they seem to have a harder time engaging with the subject. Similarly, when they are unaware of the transferability of science or do not understand the usefulness and wide application of scientific skills, knowledge and qualifications, they disengage. In a study undertaken by Welcome Trust in 2020, most students do not see science as relevant to their daily lives. Two in five young people aged 7 to 13 (41%) consider that understanding science is important for their daily life.

In a world where ideas and information about vaccine advances, technological inventions and the defense of green jobs and green skills come right, left and center from every social media channel and television, how do we is it that young people still don’t see the relevance of science to their daily lives? Science and technology issues increasingly dominate the national discourse, from environmental debates about climate change and the economic threats of invasive species, to concerns about cloning, genetically modified foods and the use of vaccines. New advances in fields such as medicine, genetics, communications and energy directly affect our lives and we hear about them constantly. All involve STEM capital!

Another interesting finding in Science Education Tracker by Welcome Trust (ibid) is that hands-on work experience is key to motivating students towards science, especially among disadvantaged and less engaged students. Practical work was considered the most motivating aspect of science lessons at school. Nearly 65% ​​of students in Years 7-9 and 57% in Years 10-13 wanted to do more hands-on work than they currently do, and this attitude was more common among students who were traditionally less engaged in science.

We know that engagement with the world of work, particularly activities such as school-organized career discussions, work experience and volunteering, could expose children and young people to the application of their education in the real world. But the evidence base has also continually highlighted the unequal distribution of access to opportunities and experiences of the world of work among young people. This is echoed in recent research by the Sutton Trust [8]; only a third of 13th graders have completed work experience, and students in fee-paying schools have better access to opportunities.

The point of the matter is that we need to reframe the narrative for young people when it comes to why STEM participation matters to our country; that they can be at the center of future solutions to global problems and that includes the climate crisis. We need scientists, engineers and other STEM leaders to help us through these uncertain times and create a safer and more sustainable place for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. This will perhaps reorient or reconstruct young people’s current perceptions of subjects such as math and science. This can prevent them from thinking that “science is not for me”, or that science is irrelevant to their life.

And maybe a perfect place to start these kinds of dialogues are through career activities and as young people themselves have said. [9]. They find the work experience, volunteering and career interviews helpful as they provide authentic examples of how ordinary people can change the course of the future through innovation and creativity. Research by iCeGS (2013)[10] identified that STEM-related learning and career activities were not always integrated, which meant that the relationship between STEM and careers was not always explicit. The change has been observed ever since. Schools and colleges have reported stronger links between subjects taught and careers through The Gatsby Benchmarks, in particular Benchmark 4 Linking ‘Curriculum Learning to Careers'[11]. Benchmarks provide the opportunity to integrate STEM and careers across the curriculum, making it easier for young people to understand the interconnectedness of their current education and the future needs of the planet. But perhaps more needs to be done to finally get the message across.

By Dr Elnaz Kashefpakdel, Head of Research, Lecturers for Schools and Visiting Researcher, International Center for Guidance Studies (iCeGS), University of Derby and Professor Siobhan Neary, Professor of Career Development Practice, International Center for Career Studies (iCeGS), University of Derby


[3] https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-hidden-stem-economy/

[4] https://educationhub.blog.gov.uk/2021/02/09/more-young-people-are-taking-stem-subjects-than-ever-before/

[5] https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/analysis-of-2021-gcse-core-stem-entrants-record-grades-in-stem-although-numbers-opting-for-non-core-stem-subjects- dropped considerably /

[8] https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Paving-the-Way.pdf

[9] https://www.speakersforschools.org/campaign/amplifying-the-voices-of-young-people-through-our-research/#:~:text=Giving%20young%20people%20a%20voice&text=In%20May% June 20 and %20%202021, recover%20%20for%20lost%20time.

[10] Hutchinson, J. (2013) School Organization and STEM Career-Related Learning. York: National Center for STEM.

[11] https://www.careersandenterprise.co.uk/our-evidence/evidence-and-reports/trends-in-careers-education-2021/

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