The Scots taking Stem by storm

20th February 2015 at 00:00
Enrolment on computing, maths and engineering degrees soars

A rapidly growing number of young Scots entering higher education are opting to study computer science, engineering and maths, new figures show.

Statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveal that the number of Scottish first-year students at UK universities studying computer science has risen by more than a fifth (21 per cent) in the past two years and by 42 per cent between 2007-08 and 2013-14.

Engineering and technology enrolments increased by more than 10 per cent between 2011-12 and 2013-14, and the number of Scots doing mathematical sciences rose by 26 per cent.

Professional organisations have long highlighted the need for fresh talent in computing and engineering - two of Scotland's most promising growth sectors - and schools, universities and employers are engaging in schemes aimed at inspiring young people to pursue these subjects.

"We're delighted to hear about the increase in student numbers," said Rebecca McLennan, Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) learning manager at Dundee Science Centre. "Along with other Stem learning providers across the country, we play a key role in inspiring people about Stem subjects and challenging perceptions to enable school-leavers to make informed decisions about their future."

Last month, TESS reported on a Women's Engineering Society initiative that encourages girls to join the sector by focusing on female pioneers of engineering of the past 100 years (" `Magnificent' scheme aims to give girls wings", 16 January).

And in October last year, Sherry Coutu, a non-executive director of schools computing charity the Raspberry Pi Foundation, told an audience of teenagers that 5.8 million people would be needed in the "app economy" by 2018 - including tens of thousands in Scotland. It was vital for young people to meet role models and understand that the software they used every day was created by people just like them, she said.

Statistics on Higher exam entries from the Scottish Qualifications Authority confirm the trends highlighted by HESA. In 2014, there were 4,468 entries in computing, compared with 3,989 in 2013. There were also more Higher entries in technological studies - 772 in 2014, up from 735 the previous year.

In subjects such as medicine, veterinary science and law, the numbers of Scottish first-year higher education students have dropped over the past seven years. But in subjects allied to medicine, such as biomedical sciences and physiotherapy, they increased by 25 per cent between 2007-08 and 2013-14.

Polly Purvis, chief executive of ScotlandIS, the trade body for the digital technologies industry, said the figures were "good news" and reflected young people's increasing interest in coding and computing science.

"There's a lot of hard work going on at grass-roots level both within schools, through projects like Plan C [Professional Learning and Networking for Computing] and the work of Computing at School Scotland, and outside the main curriculum, with initiatives such as Apps for Good, First Lego League, CoderDoJo, Code Clubs and so on," she said.

"Young people are beginning to recognise the wealth of well-paid and interesting job opportunities that computing science opens the door to."

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said: "It's very encouraging to see growing numbers of Scottish students studying maths, engineering and computer science in the last couple of years, not least because these industries in Scotland have been saying they need more highly qualified people in these fields."

Universities had long worked with schools and local authorities to make science subjects more appealing to a greater number of people, she explained, adding: "It's too soon to know whether this is part of a lasting trend but hopefully these long-term initiatives are paying off."

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