Boosting students’ interest in STEM

Written by: Rhiannon Thomas | Published:
Image: MA Education

The Your Life campaign’s Tough Choices report highlights the issue of declining interest in STEM as students get older and looks to inspire schools and industry to tackle the problem. Rhiannon Thomas explains

The UK has a serious shortage of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. The Campaign for Science and Engineering suggests the shortfall of STEM workers in the UK is as high as 40,000 each year.

Today, every business needs a digital presence for success and STEM skills are no longer only relevant to one or two specific sectors of the economy.

Modern organisations deploy technology across many functions, so an ever-greater proportion of the workforce requires abilities in STEM.

This in turn means the UK STEM skills gap is set to grow, not diminish. Businesses will be increasingly dependent on digital knowledge and numerical analytics, which puts a high premium on maths and physics skills in young adults.

Yet, only one in four English secondary school students chooses two or more STEM subjects at A level and only one in 11 chooses both maths and physics.

The Your Life campaign was set up to achieve a 50 per cent increase in uptake of maths and physics A level by the end of 2017.

On behalf of Your Life, A.T. Kearney recently undertook a major piece of insight into student’s thinking to lift the lid on the decision-making process of those that chose to move away from science and maths before A level. The result was our Tough Choices report which launched earlier this year.

When students enter secondary school, research shows that 74 per cent of them are interested in and enjoy science lessons. But from year 7 onwards, we see a dramatic decline in STEM engagement as every year of secondary school progresses.

The situation is far graver for girls, with only 19 per cent of girls (vs 33 per cent of boys) taking two or more STEM subjects at A level, although they begin secondary school with comparative levels of interest in science.

Tough Choices outlines the issues in greater detail, but one of the most startling findings of Your Life’s research is that the low uptake of science and maths beyond the age of 16 is mostly based on rational decision-making by students who see STEM study as too abstract and theoretical and not relevant for their future careers paths.

Tough Choices shows that students are unaware of the opportunities that studying maths and physics can provide: opening doors to a huge number of jobs, across almost any sector.

These skills are in high demand in the working world, but if students are unaware of this, it naturally has an impact on whether they choose to take maths and physics to A level. The key factors influencing their decision are:

  • Students lack confidence in their STEM ability (particularly girls) and are concerned about their ability to achieve the top grades, so make a rational choice to choose subjects where they feel they can secure higher grades.
  • STEM study is perceived by students as only for the “ultra-bright” and leading to elite careers as a scientist, science teacher or doctor.
  • Students have an alarming lack of knowledge of the many careers paths dependent on STEM qualifications.
  • As maths and physics lessons tackle more theoretical, less practical concepts as secondary school progresses, students are reinforced in their perception that these subjects have less relevance to future careers.

At Your Life, we believe there is actually incredible potential to inspire young people about the explosion of STEM career opportunities now available. STEM careers have never before had greater relevance to the lives of young people and their interests.

Nearly three quarters of today’s teens have access to a SmartPhone and 92 per cent go online every day. They are digital natives – born at a time where consumer technology and 24/7 connectivity is a given in every workplace, school and household.

In fact, the same teens that are turning away from maths and physics at A level may well be the technology experts in their own homes, but these young people have not yet made the connection between the devices and services that they use and enjoy, and the maths and physics inherent in their creation.

Indeed, so many of the passions and pastimes of today’s teens – gaming, social media, music, sport – are all swept up in the tech revolution, yet student’s knowledge of career opportunities driven by this tech boom is very limited.

Your Life believes by forging closer relationships between schools and businesses, we can directly demonstrate the relevancy of subject choices to their lives. We can show students how technological innovation is creating exciting new possibilities and career paths.

Currently very few young people aspire to careers in engineering or science, but that is in part due to the limited awareness of what those careers look like today. Working alongside businesses, with input from teachers, government and partners in the STEM space, Your Life has a programme of activities including school visits and experiences, teaching resources and engaging content directed at teenagers. These demonstrate how taking maths and physics can lead to exciting and rewarding careers paths.

  • Rhiannon Thomas is from A.T. Kearney.

Further information

Your Life is an industry-led and government-supported campaign, which aims to show the career opportunities unlocked by studying STEM and drive uptake of maths and physics at A level or equivalent. For the Tough Choices report (February 2016), go to http://yourlife.org.uk/tough-choices


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