STEM in Education: Where are we, really? TechTalent January 24
31 Jan 2024 by Joel Hard

STEM in Education: Where are we, really? TechTalent January 24

First, the headline that will come as no surprise to you if you subscribe to TechTalent: the UK needs to create more STEM graduates, lure them into related careers, and keep them there.

How urgent is the need? The IET estimates that the shortage of STEM skills in the UK—which equates to over 173,000 workers—may cost the UK economy £1.5bn per year. Its 2021 Skills Survey identified that 49% of engineering businesses are experiencing difficulties hiring, while the government has stated that it needs to find an additional 150,000 researchers and technicians by 2030 to sustain its R&D ambitions. On a related note, The IET’s 2023 Sustainability Skills Survey also reveals that the UK is the only country in which most employers—63 percent—think the education system does not prepare graduates well for industry.

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, only 26 percent of UK graduates come from STEM courses, though other Western European countries have a similar problem; only Germany produces more than 30 percent of graduates in STEM fields. CSET’s most recent research suggests that over 40% of graduates in China study STEM subjects, with China and India producing 3.57 million and 2.55 million STEM graduates respectively in 2020. The emerging super-economies are putting a lot into STEM and their success is largely due to their ability to build products and technologies.

STEM needs more women

Now that STEM skills are a numbers game, diversity in the associated sectors has become an issue: the relevant careers overwhelmingly attract men, but there simply aren’t enough of them to make up the skills deficit. At school, college and university, STEM subjects really need female students.

Women constitute 47% of the UK workforce, but, according to one report, less than a fifth of students in engineering, technology and computing degrees are women. Role models and mentors play a huge part in inspiring young people to pursue their career choices, but women make up only 14% of professors in Physics, Maths and Chemistry nationwide. This lowers to 9% in Electrical and Computer Engineering subjects. And if you’re one of only two or three young women in a group of thirty engineering students at college, and the people who come in to talk to you about their careers are all men, and all their colleagues are men, how are you supposed to conclude that this is a career for you?

STEM’s Catch-22

We’re trapped: we lack students and the teachers to inspire and teach them. We’re not only short on female STEM professors—we’ve a shortage STEM educators generally. The National Foundation for Educational Research found that teacher training recruitment was well below government targets in 2022/23, with the deficit most pronounced in physics, design and technology and computing. The picture was also bleak in Further Education; in 2022 a report by The Financial Times found that three-quarters of domestic colleges were unable to recruit the staff they needed to teach technical and digital subjects.

So industry and education needs to work together to attract teachers as well as students. The DfE’s “Engineers teach physics” programme is a good start, with scholarships and bursaries available for trainee physics teachers starting their teacher training course between September 2024 and July 2025.

Students think creativity is missing from STEM subjects

A 2022 report by the British Science Association revealed that young people perceive very little overlap in the teaching of STEM and creative subjects, and “believe this is a problem because it stifles creative thinking in STEM subjects...and sets students on a path of being either a ‘creative’ person or a ‘STEM’ person.”

In other words, students don’t necessarily think STEM careers can’t be creative; they just think that the way STEM subjects are taught creates an unrealistic dichotomy between creative and STEM subjects. They also don’t see enough creativity being applied to societal problems of the future.

But engineering is about solving problems, and we need make it feel as creative as it is. Rolls-Royce has set itself a target to inspire the next generation of engineers, with a STEM Outreach programme that aims to reach 25 million people by 2030 through an army of ambassadors. There are plenty of employers with the capacity to engage students and open their eyes to the creativity and excitement of design, engineering and manufacturing. To be effective, they don’t need the resources that Rolls-Royce has at its disposal; building meaningful relationships with local schools would be a good start.

The STEM conundrum

If there’s such a lack of STEM students, why do so many relevant graduates either struggle to find work, or quickly drop out of STEM careers when you’d expect them to be courted and nurtured by employers? Clearly, more needs to be done to align STEM employers and educators, and to provide better onboarding and development programmes for graduate-level hires. Both employers and educators have a role here, with some already leading the way—Polestar and JLR are just two of many brands that have outstanding intake programmes.

So where are we, really?

There’s a complicated set of issues hobbling the development of STEM skills and careers in the UK. We have the will, lots of talent and lots of smarts. We just don’t have enough hands on deck, and STEM education feels gridlocked. If the UK is to remain a leader in manufacturing, engineering and R&D, we need to resolve these issues, and quickly.

What caught our attention this month

We all know that our cars don’t like the cold, but an analysis of 10,000 EVs in the US has revealed they lose, on average, about 30% of their range when driving at 32 degrees Fahrenheit compared to ideal conditions.

Could Hyundai’s Mobi e-Corner system be the next stage in manoeuvrability?

From Digital Twins to scheduling software, here are some of the technologies the construction industry needs this year, according to People Development Magazine.


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