The cover story of Eureka's June's issue addressed the lack of school children taking an interest in STEM subjects, therefore turning their backs on careers in science and engineering at an early age. One organisation that hopes to remedy this on a national scale is STEMNET, who not only offers free advice for schools on how to embed STEM learning and create STEM clubs, but also runs its flagship STEM Ambassadors programme. There are now over 30,000 STEM Ambassadors – volunteers from industry who provide context to the school curriculum, showing for example how maths and physics can be turned into a career in engineering.
While every engineer that volunteers to work with children can play an important role, it is a piecemeal solution. STEMNET's remit is to work in every secondary school, co-ordinating these volunteers as STEM Ambassadors to provide a broad and positive image of technology based careers, and provide school teachers with a resource they can knit into curriculum-based studies.
Kirsten Bodley is chief executive of STEMNET and believes children need to get past the common belief that taking science subjects can only lead to being a doctor or science teacher: "What we are doing is about the whole issue of STEM literacy which is more about life skills on one level, but also allows them to look at a lot of different careers and will clearly help the skills shortage in the UK. But that isn't something that can happen overnight, it takes time building things up and it means working in a coordinated way."
Part of the problem is that we don't start early enough claimed Bodley. "What we need is to start working in a less patchy manner with primary schools because then the difference we make is amplified in secondary schools. If primary schools want STEM Ambassadors then we provide them, but we don't proactively form relationships like we do with secondary schools because there are just too many." There are approximately 4000 secondary schools compared with 21,000 primary schools in the UK.
STEMNET does agree targets with its principal funders of which BIS is the largest and also includes DFE, the Gatsby Foundation and the Scottish Government. These targets cover the relationships with schools and engagement with the Ambassador programme rather than looking for specific increases in students taking STEM subjects. Bodley said: "We don't exist in isolation, so we can't say we are responsible for a certain number of extra students taking Physics A level, but our last evaluation report was incredibly positive – we have had a real impact on the young people, the teachers as well as the employers we work with."
These employers are of course crucial as they are mainly responsible for providing the STEM Ambassadors, but the diversity within engineering companies in terms of size, location, technology and many other factors means that every STEM Ambassador comes with a different message and each contributing company is looking to get something different out of it.
"The model is very flexible," said Bodley. "A lot of the large employers have a very national approach - I talk very much at a national level to Rolls Royce for example. But a lot of schools and young people don't fully understand how many local SME's there are and there could be a smaller employer around the corner from the school that they are unaware of."
Companies like Rolls Royce have their own education departments but, according to Bodley: "Smaller ones don't have that capacity, so they like to use us as their infrastructure and to make them easily engage with schools in their local area, as that is where their future workforce is going to come from."
By providing this path between engineering community and schools, some of the traditional stereotypes, which often prevent children from considering engineering careers, can be broken down. "There is this wide perception that an engineer is still the guy who comes round to look at your boiler - that is the public face of engineering and it is a difficult one to break," observed Bodley. "To me the best way to break it is to get role models in front of young people who can actually demonstrate what an engineer or scientist or technologist is and what they can do. Many years ago there was a girl that commented to me when I was at an event, 'goodness I didn't know scientists could be married with kids!' Putting a role model in front of a young person shows them immediately that this isn't what they were expecting.
"40% of our STEM Ambassadors are female and that is not to just benefit the girls. I firmly believe that we need to put the female role models in front of the boys as well. If the boys don't understand it is okay for girls to do science, maths and physics and all those sorts of things, then the girls won't choose to do them as there is too much peer pressure. We deliberately have a much higher proportion of females in our STEM Ambassadors programme than there is in the STEM work force."
Equally the profile of STEM Ambassadors is kept as young as possible – 60% are under 35 – in order to improve the connection with children.
And there is still need for more people to come forward from within the engineering community as every individual has a different career path and perspective on engineering careers. The best way to utilise this resource and share this experience is to go through STEMNET says Bodley: "There is an awful lot of stuff that is sent into schools and they don't know how to sort it out. Because we are seen by schools as a trusted advisor in terms of STEM, we are actually the best route to get something into a school or to raise the schools awareness of something that is available."
Kirsten Bodley is the Chief Executive of STEMNET, a UK-wide charitable organisation that works with thousands of businesses and schools to promote all aspects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to inspire young people.
Kirsten began her career in industry as a Development Chemist for Courtaulds working in the coatings division. She then moved on to become a Consultant for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, in the R&D areas, at KPMG Consulting.
She subsequently changed her career path and became a Year 6 teacher at Claygate Primary School. Continuing with her deep interest in education, she embarked on a career as STEMNET Regional Director for London. She then became Director of Networks in August 2008.
Kirsten has completed degrees in science, education and business, and is a member of the Society of Chemical Industry.