Pre-teens must love STEM if UK is to close the skills gap

17th November 2016
Joe Bush

The results of a recent survey have been published by Mathsworks, in which the company interviewed engineering, tech, maths and science professionals (during MATLAB Expo) on their view of the STEM industries skills gap; How do they think it can be closed? What role should industry play? And how did they get into a STEM career?

Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors are struggling to attract school leavers and the industries are seeking solutions to their ongoing skill gaps. During the research by MathWorks, STEM professionals were asked whether students are being targeted too late to develop a love of STEM subjects? The response was affirmative - half of respondents believe students need to be encouraged towards these sectors much younger than is conventional - namely at primary school. When asked to consider their own experiences 40% said they were inspired to love the subjects by their families and 19% knew they wanted to follow a STEM profession by the time they were ten years old – 46% had made the decision by 16.

Questions then turned to who should do the encouraging. While, typically, this is expected to be the responsibility of the education system, a third of those surveyed claim that school encouragement wasn’t important in their decision to enter into their chosen occupation. And, despite half saying that the teaching of STEM related subjects has improved since they were in school, 38% argue schools aren’t producing people with the skills that society needs.

Most respondents agreed that the emphasis for turning out future STEM professionals shouldn’t be placed on educators alone and that families and the industry should take on a greater responsibility. Of those questioned, 60% fostered their love of STEM outside of the classroom, having enjoyed extra-curricular activities like the Science Museum with their family. In terms of what the STEM industry could do, nearly two-thirds (63%) said employers should be hosting school visits - while 56% also believe they should be funding projects at schools.

MathWorks surveyed 170 STEM professionals during its annual MATLAB EXPO UK in October 2016. MATLAB Expo is attended by more than 700 delegates from the UK STEM community including major STEM employers as well as leading academic organisations.

Chris Hayhurst, Consulting Manager, MathWorks commented: “Mathematics: The Winton Gallery shows how mathematics underpins every part of our lives. This is our chance to bring maths theory to life for students, showing them how it has helped shape the world they live in, and engaging them in the subject in the long-term. We believe this gallery will inspire future generations to explore maths, and increase awareness of the exciting career opportunities it offers.

“STEM industries are critical to driving growth in the UK economy and yet skills in these subjects are in desperately short supply. Key to meeting the growing demand is inspiring the next generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians.

“It’s time to go right back to the beginning, and enable young children to get hands-on so they can see that computing, maths and physics, for example, are very creative as well as technical. We need to engage them in fun applications of the subject to capture their imagination. These early experiences are really important as they feed into the decisions children make about their own study paths.

“Parents, teachers and those in industry are all responsible for inspiring the next generation. Research shows a person’s early cultural references and values affect their attitudes to a subject. If we provide positive experiences and forge deeper connections, we can change attitudes towards STEM in the long term.”

MathWorks is a major sponsor of Mathematics: The Winton Gallery opening at the Science Museum in London on 8th December. The new gallery explores how mathematicians, their tools and ideas have helped to shape the modern world over the last 400 years. Mathematics: The Winton Gallery will place mathematics at the heart of all our lives, bringing the subject to life through remarkable stories, artefacts and design.

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