It may surprise you that the UK is an industry leader in space technology, supplying vital research to international programmes, to the likes of Nasa and the European Space Agency.
UK scientists and businesses are creating new technologies that enhance global communications and the way we interact with the world around us. However, this leading status is at risk. Jobs are increasingly being created without the talent and academic background to fill them. We are facing a looming national skills shortage.
The UK is estimated to suffer economically from a shortage of 40,000 science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills-related jobs each year. By 2030, 7.1 million UK jobs will rely on Stem skills. By that same time the global space industry will be worth more than £400 billion, and there is a government ambition to grow the UK share in the sector from 6 to 10 per cent.
Numerous surveys have found that the vast majority of young people turn away from science and maths after their GCSEs. This is because these subjects are widely viewed as difficult, inaccessible and unconnected to potential future careers. The nation’s youth are not buying into Stem subjects because they are not truly seeing them for what they are: an exciting route to fulfilling career options.
At Harwell Campus, the UK’s gateway to space, I work alongside people building innovative technologies and businesses daily. From testing space telescopes that will map out the darkest reaches of the universe, to businesses utilising space technology as part of their pursuit to create better tasting coffee, the opportunities in this sector are endless.
Science needs to be seen as accessible and inspiring right from the start of a child’s education and throughout their school life. The common stigma of Stem subjects being only suitable for male academics who gaze down microscopes in sterile lab rooms needs to be tackled through a dramatic retelling of science to engage children.
The start of this re-engagement can be achieved through the golden opportunity provided by Major Tim Peake’s mission at the International Space Station. Millions across the nation tuned in to watch his launch live, showing that space still captivates the UK and people are fascinated by the potential it offers.
Among Tim’s responsibilities, and for many the most important, is his education mission, codenamed Principia. This is a teaching programme in which he will conduct a series of science experiments on the ISS as part of the science curriculum for thousands of schoolchildren aged 11 to 19.
For most, the first visible part of this programme will be the Cosmic Classroom, a livestream broadcast conducted by Tim Peake and delivered into classrooms across the nation by TES tomorrow at 2pm. This places the exciting world of space science right in front of thousands of children, able to listen to Major Peake speaking about his endeavours and ask questions.
Literally, there could not be a higher platform from which to inspire a career in science and space Stem to young people.
Major Peake’s mission marks the first significant step in creating a culture shift around maths and science, and therefore addressing the UK skills shortfall. This precious momentum must be kept long after Tim has landed back down on Earth.
Dr Barbara Ghinelli is business development director at Harwell Campus, which is recognised by the UK government as “the UK’s gateway to space”
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