Regardless of whether you are an IT system builder in the far reaches of Scotland or a multi-national software provider in the hustle of London, STEM is most likely to be on your radar. For the past two years, the government has been ramming the importance of STEM subjects down the nation’s throat… and rightly so.
If there are not enough children gaining STEM qualifications, Britain will face a severe shortage of science, technology and engineering professionals in the years to come. This shortfall is estimated at 1.8 million people by 2025, according to Engineering UK. But the government’s plan is starting to make inroads. While uptake in Arts subjects such as English have plummeted, youngsters are increasingly turning to STEM subjects for their A Levels.
The number of entries in computing – one of the government’s flagship subjects – jumped by 26 per cent from 7,710 in 2017 to 9,685 this year. And uptake of the maths A-level rose by 3 per cent.
All of which is music to the ears of Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton.
“From the perspective of society as a whole we have an under-supply of people with STEM skills, so fostering those skills can contribute to economic growth,” he says. “Getting children involved in STEM subjects is a complicated issue, and obviously the answer varies from child to child.
“One common theme is to place STEM subjects in context: not just promoting computing for its own sake (which would have been enough to get me excited as a kid), but computing as a way to solve a problem which is meaningful for the child.
“This is why we get excited when we see art and geography teachers signing up for our training: because for children who are passionate about those subjects they can act as gateways into STEM.”
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has long been associated with encouraging children into STEM subjects, in particular computing.
Schemes such as the Foundation’s Coding Clubs have proved extremely successful at encouraging children as young as nine years old to get excited about computing.
Getting children excited about STEM subjects from a young age is key to unlocking the potential of the UK’s future.
As Microsoft general manager for Consumer Devices and Sales in the UK and Ireland Nicole Dezen points out: encouraging young people into STEM subjects ‘is the only way that we can build a talent pipeline in the tech industry’.
“The growing demand for digital skills requires that we have a steady influx of new talent that are learning the newest technology,” she added. “We must encourage these young people to pursue careers in STEM industries and fulfil their potential.
“The technology industry will continue to evolve and unless we innovate, inspire and motivate the next generation to take an interest in STEM subjects, there is a real risk that they will get left behind, and the tech industry will be faced with a serious talent shortage.”
One thing that Dezen believes is integral to maintaining positive STEM uptake is by ramping up the interest among girls by removing the outdated stigma that ‘STEM subjects are for boys’.
Last year, Microsoft conducted extensive research into attitudes to STEM in young people across Europe. The study interviewed 11,500 women aged between 11 and 30 and the results underline exactly why making STEM appealing at a young age is so important.
However, once concern the study highlighted is that most young girls become interested in STEM at the age of 11-and-a-half, but their interest starts to wane by the age of 15.
However, 57 per cent of the young European women surveyed said that having a teacher who encouraged them to pursue STEM would make it more likely for them to follow that career path.
Dezen added: “It’s really important for tech companies to be diverse and inclusive, to represent the entire world that we provide our solutions to and that we have an authentic voice with customers of all ages.
“For me, the key to getting more children into STEM subjects, particularly more young girls, is mentorship and visible role models. As children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman articulated so well: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Children need to be inspired by those accomplishing great feats in STEM fields and encouraged to set their own sights on achieving similarly ambitious goals.
“We need to give girls role models, teach them the skills they will need, encourage them, and show them that careers in technology will help change the world for the better.
“Those in leadership positions in STEM fields, should be creating platforms to encourage mentoring and foster enthusiasm for these subjects in order to spark that inspiration to pursue STEM.”
Equally Aine Denn, Founder of Altify, believes that ‘developing the next generation of female leaders in technology we should start with education’.
She adds: “Currently, girls are put off from taking STEM subjects in schools and universities as they can’t imagine a career in STEM. Traditionally they have not seen enough female role models in STEM subjects.
“We all need to actively encourage the next generation of female leaders to pursue STEM subjects.”
As well as breaking down the gender constraints, which are suffocating STEM uptake, Ellie Bradley, COO at Nominet believes that children need to be shown where subjects can take them in the future.
“There is a lack of understanding about what career paths are open to young people with different qualifications in STEM subjects, which is compounded by a lack of availability of teachers and other role models in the community,” she said.
“Just like a business recruiting for roles where candidates need to see themselves in a business to work there, children need similar role models and positive influencers to encourage them into STEM subjects, which will hopefully whet their appetite for jobs in the sector further down the line.”
Bradley believes that it is the role of teachers, parents and the industry itself to make STEM subjects more appealing.
She believes that industry leaders should ‘be targeting the children more directly with information that promotes STEM subjects’. Thinking – and already acting – very much along the same lines is Craig Hume, director of the award-winning retailer and system builder Utopia Computers. Outside of running the business, Hume has taken time out to head into classrooms around the Kilmarnock area to help inspire the next generation.
“At Utopia we try and help out with schools as often as possible, just last week I was in a primary school sharing with the students a glimpse of the jobs of the future, how does being a Mars Colony Architect sound?” Hume says.
“In reality, engineers are working on these problems today and at Utopia we feel that it is important for us to do our part to inspire kids to get into the industry.”
Hume also points out that the country has been enormously successful in tech, despite its size: “The UK has punched well above its weight in the creation and design of new technology. If we want to continue to be a leader on a global market then we need our kids to learn the skills.
“While we currently attract the best researchers from around the world, it’s important that we continue to cultivate our own homegrown talent in order to hit our growth targets.”