No buds on the STEM

9 min read

Are you suffering from STEM fatigue? Are too many people talking about skills shortages, whose fault it is and who should do what about it? That in itself could be a problem, but as Tim Fryer found out, all the bits of the jigsaw are already there – maybe it is the picture that is missing?

There is a clearly defined problem. To retain competitiveness the UK's engineering sector needs more people. As a sector we are getting older, naturally, which is as fine as it is unavoidable on an individual level, but to maintain the status quo there needs to be at least as many people entering the sector as there are retiring from it. And there isn't.

This also only applies if the current engineering sector is fully staffed. Which it also isn't.

According to a report from EngineeringUK released last year, the UK, for the next five years at least, will need around 87,000 graduate engineers and a further 69,000 at advanced apprentice level. The report suggests that graduate output was 46,000 and there were only 27,000 engineering apprentices in 2013. India produces over a million engineering graduates. Universities in India, China and the other Asian countries are also climbing the global university league tables – we can no longer sit back complacently in the knowledge that our graduates are the best.

The economic arguments are lengthy, serious and, despite that danger of STEM fatigue, must be addressed.

So we find ourselves in a that typically British position of deciding whose fault it is, while also adopting that typical engineering stance of how do we find a solution.

For the sake of this argument, the most important part of this jigsaw, the young people, cannot be seen as having a creative part of the solution. They are the resource that we need to use responsibly, but they have a myriad of options and if our option isn't attractive they will go elsewhere.

Parents form the second important group and they quite clearly do have a key role to play. However, in bygone days it was far more likely that a parent's job involved making or producing stuff. Going back to 1982, according to the Office of National Statistics 5,551,000 people, 21.5% of the workforce, were employed in the manufacturing sector. By 2014, this had fallen to 2,583,000, or 7.8%. In other words, a generation ago there were proportionately three times as many children whose primary role model was involved in 'making'.

And while that doesn't stop a good parent building robots with their child, parents these days have a tough job being good parents – do they encourage their children to learn languages, do volunteering, play musical instruments, join sports clubs, learn to cook and take care of themselves? It is as tough being a parent as it is being a kid.

So realistically we have to turn to the usual suspects – the educators and the industry – if things are going to change.

And things do have to change. Irrespective of the initiatives and investments that are going on, the ultimate outcome is clear to see – whatever we are doing is not working. Or at least is not working yet. This urgency to rebuild the engineering and technology sectors was only really taken seriously when the financial sector revealed itself to be so vulnerable, and that is still only seven years ago. So schemes that involve influencing young children will only be proved successful if and when they make it to being engineering professionals, and this will undoubtedly take a while to be proven successful or otherwise. However there are indicators along the way.

According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2013/14 there are 628,000 students enrolled in science based subjects of which 99,000 were specifically in engineering and technology, These healthy sounding figures need to be slashed, typically by a third, as they cover all students in higher education, not just those in their final year. However the numbers are also on the up – in 2009/10 there were 89,000 engineering students.

As an indicator, this shows that we are not on track to meet the needs of the UK's engineering sector for new graduates. Equally, apprenticeship starts in 2013/14 across all sectors reached 440,000, which is well up on the figure five years ago. The sting on the tail here is that it is still a 13.7% decrease from the number in 2012/13.

More positively, the numbers of students taking physics A level had risen to 5% of all A Level students, a rise of 22%, and the percentage taking maths was at 12.4%, an increase of 19.2%.

On the whole, a foundation to build on, but the problem clearly remains unresolved.

Blame the universities

Graduates are not only coming out in insufficient numbers, their skill set is not always good enough, according to some employers, to be able to drop directly into useful employment. Some of the 'soft skills', like team working, management, communications, marketing and so on, are often lacking but so too can be technical and hands–on skills. So are universities churning out less competent graduates?

Professor Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London (UCL), believes even that is not easy to establish. "There is a limited amount of time to teach students and exactly how we balance the technical and soft skills of students in that time is a curriculum challenge which we face. The changing in the nature of preparation of students prior to coming to university has exerted further curriculum pressure upon us, and that is changing the nature of the things we are and can do. They come from school to us with better self organisation and self management skills, but poorer technical problem solving skills. So the schools are preparing the students differently to hitherto. It is not better or worse, it is just different."

The consequence here is that much of the first year at university can be taken up by bringing all undergraduates up to standard, and, beyond the other skill sets that employers might want, quite often the engineering expertise that can then be crammed into the remaining two undergraduate years is still short of what employers need.

Moreover, the higher education sector is fundamentally a supply and demand operation. While there may be an argument to say that a well taught course will encourage an engineering graduate to continue in an engineering career, universities endeavour to provide courses that match industry requirements in terms of content. And the more paying customers there are (i.e. students) the more places will become available – universities can only run courses that will be well subscribed and therefore well funded.

So blame the schools….

This is the most interesting sector. There is no doubt that budding engineers need to make the first steps on their career path during the time they are at school. Whether that path branches off to university, apprenticeships or maybe through the new UTCs (University Technical Colleges), both the spark and the underlying knowledge must come at this age.

There are some excellent schemes to provide this spark at an early age, for example the Primary Engineer (see page 18 of this issue), but the key time under the present system will be when the student has to chose what GCSEs to take. Maths is compulsory but if physics, computing or at least DT (design and technology) are not among the choices at this stage then it is likely that a potential engineer has been forever lost.

One of the problems here is that the sciences and maths are hard. In a child's formative years it may be that these subjects offer an unwelcome academic challenge, where a problem-solving approach may better attract engineers.

At the recent STEMtech event, conference chair Roland Meredith, an associate at schools consultancy SCS, stated that there is: "A tyranny of subject based learning. Engineering is the important bit – it is the bit that joins up the S, T and M in STEM."

And yet engineering is not directly taught in schools.

Also speaking at STEMtech was Mike Brown, director of academic programmes at Siemens, who added: "You need a cross-curricular approach to STEM. You also need to think that students will be using the very latest technology and we need to prepare them for it. It is important that they have technological literacy and know how to apply it."

The demands being made on teachers are manifold - and constant tinkering with the curriculum by politicians does not help - but the principal one of those demands is to make sure that performance criteria are met. Students need to pass their exams. So talk of cross-curricular or extra-curricular activities are often not possible, even though it is these activities that could provide this link in STEM or the spark in the nascent engineer.

To a degree then, the hands of the education system are tied.

The Boeing and Royal Aeronautical Society Schools Build-a-Plane Challenge has so far produced two fully operational planes

So is it industry to blame?

As observed before, previous generations were far more exposed to engineering and manufacturing than the present one is. Collieries, steelworks, car plants et al were frequently at the heart of a community and offered an obvious, sometimes even inevitable, employment path. While this may have emphasised the relationship between hard graft and producing something at the end of the working day, the job of the coal miner could not be further removed from that of the modern design engineer. Unfortunately such modern engineers can be invisible to the younger generation.

Somehow children need to find out that making things work, solving problems, designing the products that the rest of society depends on, can be an exciting and rewarding career. Also that it is an option, open to all, that comes in a host of different guises, with something to captivate children with all sorts of different interests.

Teachers are not engineers. It needs engineers to be demonstrating to children what is on offer.Astonishingly there are somewhere in the region of 2500 schemes that do just that in the UK. At STEMtech Sir Michael Arthur, President of Boeing UK and Ireland, described an ongoing project it was running with six schools, each of which is building a fully functional aeroplane - two have already been completed and flew at the Farnborough Air Show. He observed that one of the advantages of this sort of project was that "the students came into contact with a very diverse group of adults with a variety of experience and skills."

Meanwhile Brown outlined what Siemens is doing on a number of fronts including supporting the Electric Car Challenge. Julie Collins, education liaison manager at Renishaw, summed it up by saying: "It is vitally important to Renishaw as a business that we engage with education." And on top of its record in providing apprenticeships and pre-university placements, it also offers work experience and goes directly to schools in its Gloucestershire catchment area, always, stressed Collins, trying to work within the school curricula.

Many more great companies are doing great things in various schools and many more are willing to do so. But this offer of help is not always getting through. Sir Michael Arthur quoted an experience where Boeing addressed 30 schools and only got past the school secretary on two occasions. Headteachers, so often overworked, are typically a target for such offers of engineering help, but may have such bulging inboxes or overprotective school secretaries that they never get to see the offers.

Science and DT teachers, who would probably be the champions of such schemes, may never get to hear of them at all. One such teacher from North London said they were in an impossible position. Not only did they not get information on all projects, it was impossible to assess them all anyway. There was no standardisation about what the school needed to pay, how much time would need to commited to the project, what the engineering company was offering, how experienced they were at working with children and how reliable would they be – businesses, after all, need to put their business first. Most of all, what value will they potentially get out of it. School time is a much fought over commodity as there are those that believe with equal passion that schools should spend more of their time promoting, sport, languages, music and more.

So no one is to blame?

The penny seems to have dropped with all the stakeholders that promoting STEM to children is vitally important to the UK. Despite occasional bouts of finger pointing, it appears each sector is making an effort to up their game. But there is still no real evidence that it is working. Something else needs to change, but it is not a single thing. Prof Finkelstein said: "The problem is a complex multi factor problem and a whole range of things are tied together. This is a 25 year project, not an 18 month project. That means that industry, professional institutions, universities, further and vocational educators, school educators, cultural institutions, all have to work in a unified way and as a partnership."

And maybe that is what is lacking. Not the intention, because that appears to be there, but the implementation. Perhaps these disparate yet enthusiastic strands need to be bought together. Unquestionably there is value in having locally relevant input into a school from an engineering company and to try and standardise that on a national level would result in loss of impact. However, ideally engineering firms could tailor their input to fit in with what schools require and schools would have a database of such inputs that they could dip into to find partners they could trust and that would suit their agenda.

Such a central resource could be STEMNET, a charity that receives funding from the Government. It claims to serve thousands of schools and has 27,000 STEM Ambassadors. The objectives of this organisation are ideally aligned with what the industry and government perceives that it wants. However, once more returning to the central theme, overall it's not working. At least not in terms of the overall numbers of engineers we are creating. Perhaps what it needs is less separate initiatives. The engineering professional bodies, engineering companies, government departments, all channelling all of their support and initiatives through this one network. Hopefully this would allow it to really take the issue by the scruff of the neck and provide the clarity and direction that will enable all the pieces of this jigsaw to create picture we all want.

There are endless sources of information including:

University College