STEM: Industry placements for teachers

Written by: Rose Russell | Published:
Hands-on: STEM co-ordinator Rose Russell during her industry placement on the Crossrail project in London (Image: Supplied)

A placement in industry has transformed how STEM co-ordinator Rose Russell talks to her students about career paths and opportunities involving these crucial subjects

If the truth be known I didn’t feel fully equipped, informed or educated enough to advise our pupils on career paths – engineering, in particular. I had no training in that area and besides we had Connexions, the careers advisors, who dealt with careers and work experience in schools.

Very often I was asked by students, what is an engineer? What’s the difference between civil, structural, and mechanical? And at times I really felt like I was bluffing it – if the truth be known. I didn’t feel able to answer questions on engineering with any conviction.

So, I wanted to increase my links with industry, and broaden my network of contacts. That was key. And knowing how incredibly important a part inspirational role models can play in helping young people to see what opportunities are possible, I wanted to increase our invitations to professional engineers to speak to our students in order to increase their knowledge about potential career pathways.

Having had no formal training, I wanted to gain, a better understanding and confidence of how to communicate about engineering to our young people, and to raise the profile of engineering as an exciting career.

The solution

I remember sitting at my computer one day when an email came through about a teacher work experience placement with the STEM Insight programme. I was lucky and had the chance to apply for Crossrail – the biggest engineering project in Europe. For me this was going to be my front seat into the industry to learn about engineering and its career paths.

In those two weeks I had to keep pinching myself – the other attendee felt exactly the same – was this for real? Especially being allowed to go down under and see the tunnels under construction at both Bond and Liverpool Street. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be involved in the biggest engineering project in Europe! I felt like I was getting daily masterclasses. I felt fantastic and I loved it.

Meeting up with the engineers, graduates and apprentices during my placement helped me gain an understanding that would give me the tools to enthuse my pupils and also depart new knowledge and skills in my department.

The highlight for me, though, has to be going underground – 30 metres below ground level – at the Bond Street site. Civil engineer, Helen MacAdam, very kindly shared her knowledge and experiences with us. She gifted us with rare access, as we went down the different levels, seeing the tunnels taking shape.

I found this to be a very absorbing experience. It was good to witness first-hand how the new and innovative sustainable features were being embedded in the walls of the site. Also observing the newly sprayed concrete lined tunnels, that will be used as passenger and service passageways. For me, Bond Street was the highlight of the placement. I was amazed by how much I had learnt about myself; how much my confidence had grown and how I have gained valuable experience into how to raise the quality of teaching and learning in design and technology.

Bringing knowledge back to school

My main goal within my role as STEM coordinator at Ursuline Academy, is to encourage our students’ aspirations by mentoring, supporting and ensuring young people from all year groups have access to high-quality STEM information. After my placement, students’ awareness, understanding and interest in different areas of the STEM sectors have been dramatically increased.

In a way, I have developed a role within my other job roles that has given me the opportunity to try to make a difference. It is great to think I might have helped, in some way, to narrow the gender gap by informing and inspiring a future generation of civil engineers. This will of course have a long-term knock-on effect, not on me as an individual, not on just a couple of students, but on the whole culture of the school.

My focus when I applied was to seek out female engineers as inspirational role models. The ones I met have given me some really great advice, and it is good to know that they are always on hand, should I need to know something. We later invited these engineers to school as guest and keynote speakers to encourage students to consider STEM-related careers.

Students make better career decisions when they learn about a wide range of occupations and get past the stereotypes about different careers. We have worked persistently to abolish archaic ideas that design and technology careers are only for males. I would like to think our classroom is a training ground for our students – not only for future study in their field, but also for many aspects of life.

So, bringing in more inspirational female keynote speakers from industry has helped to dispel our pupils’ fears that engineering is a male profession. As a result design and technology is now a vibrant and stimulating subject area, in which our students are making brilliant progress; there is a real passion for learning throughout the curriculum.

They are beginning to view the department as an engineering subject. Despite the effects of EBacc, my placement has had a direct effect on the uptake of design and technology – this year, we are at full capacity for GCSE.

The impact

The impact the department has had on the school and community is immense.

Students are talking about STEM, exploring career options and the regular STEM extra-curricular activities are also oversubscribed.

Figures have suggested that we need an additional 87,000 engineers in the next 10 years – that’s a staggering amount. I am not an expert on engineering by any means, but if initiatives such as teacher placements allow us to help students take steps towards building a future in engineering and STEM careers, then I would say everything has been worth the investment. Because I know for sure that none of these opportunities afforded to our students would have happened without me taking part in a placement.

I can proudly say that one student who was all set to go to university decided to apply instead for an Apprenticeship with Skanska. We now have our first civil engineer apprentice, who took her position last September. And this year I have learned that 70 per cent of our A level physics class are going on to pursue careers in engineering, and others will follow and study STEM subjects further.

I am one who normally takes one day at a time, but I can tell you that I cannot wait for the next five years – to see the lives, paths and careers that these women will go on to pursue in the future. I predict a bright future for them all.

There is nothing quite like helping your students to realise their desired career pathway and helping them to take the necessary steps into a promising career. And there is nothing quite like witnessing the moment when they actually realise that anything is possible for their future, as long as they have great planning, hard work and much passion.

  • Rose Russell is STEM co-ordinator at Ursuline Academy, a comprehensive school in Ilford for girls aged 11 to 19.

Further information

  • The STEM Insight programme, run by STEM Learning – offers bursary-supported placements with universities or industry across the UK, designed specifically for teachers and technicians. Visit www.stem.org.uk/stem-insight
  • STEM Learning runs the National STEM Learning Centre in York and provides professional development, resources, bursaries and tools to teachers, technicians and teaching assistants across the country. Visit www.stem.org.uk/what-we-do
  • STEM Learning also manages the national STEM Clubs and the STEM Ambassadors programmes: www.stemclubs.net and www.stemnet.org.uk/ambassadors/


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