STEM - It is rocket science, actually

20th May 2011 at 01:00
From engineering international sports stadiums to controlling satellites, careers in STEM sound considerably more exciting than double physics. Helen Beckett explores the options

There is a curious paradox that while science and technology lessons are among the most popular with pupils, very few schoolchildren aspire to be STEM professionals. Images such as the geeky chemist closeted in a laboratory or the engineer in a hard hat persist, as the newly crowned Veuve Clicquot Business-woman of the Year readily confirms.

Chartered engineer Michelle McDowell says stereotypes of "muddy boots and building sites" continue to turn youngsters, especially women, off engineering and construction. She fell into engineering by accident when her father, a science teacher, came home one day with a leaflet about a construction industry course. She attended and was hooked.

Ms McDowell got lucky, but too few students realise the exciting career opportunities that exist in STEM professions, especially the newer areas of genetics, food technology, bioengineering and nanotechnology. Agencies, industry and membership bodies are constantly thinking of new ways to showcase the dazzling array of career options, but teachers are on the front line when it comes to communicating them.

"There's still a disconnect between what kids learn in the classroom and the sexy science they see on TV," points out Dr Sarah Hill, Space Academy project manager. The academy runs student masterclasses, teacher CPD and open-day events at its Leicester-based National Space Centre on a range of subjects including physics, chemistry, geography and biology.

While it's wonderful to see primary children wowed by the rockets during school trips, just as important, says Dr Hill, is the careers seminar at the annual conference, which the Space Academy runs for teachers. Additionally, when space specialists teach masterclasses, there is usually a slide at the end to discuss careers, which features fascinating job titles such as astro-biologist and satellite controller.

Engaging with students through a popular topic or a hobby is an approach that commercial outfits such as the National Grid and AstraZeneca are adopting. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is running a series of sports events between now and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012. Local 11 to 14-year-olds will be offered a day at King's College London, where sports-related lectures and workshops will encourage them to continue their science studies.

"Young people in the UK clearly have an enthusiasm for practical, hands-on science. These 'Scientists in Sport' events (pictured) demonstrate how business and academia can work together," believes GSK director of academic liaison Malcolm Skingle. The aim is to deliver the science graduates who can drive forward the UK's science base.

Engineering is arguably the poorest relation of the STEM subjects when it comes to publicising careers to schoolchildren, because students don't have engineering classes timetabled. The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) offers many resources to teachers to advertise career routes, which typically lead to 10 different areas, with transport, structures and water the most prominent.

The global scope of the civil engineering sector also attracts many students, the ICE believes. Graduates can expect to work anywhere around the world, as most of the larger companies in the UK are multinational. "Civil engineering graduates are working on everything from foundations for a Ukrainian sports stadium to track renewals on what will be our fastest rail route on the UK east coast mainline," says its spokesperson.

ICT is a sub-branch of engineering that struggles to recruit students. Although ICT professionals are at the cutting edge of the information revolution transforming the world, fewer students are choosing computer science courses. The Next Gen skills review published in February predicts acute skills shortages, and skills sector and industry bodies are promoting the varied and well- remunerated jobs available.

Fascinating avenues to explore include artificial intelligence, computer forensics and internet security, while the gaming industry offers another cool career destination. The gaming industry employs between 25,000 and 30,000 in the UK, of whom 30 per cent are programmers, according to Tony Bickley, chief operating officer of the Train2Game training company.

Whatever the STEM career in question, it's all a question of piquing young people's interest and showing how, one day, it could be them. As Charlie Ashley-Roberts, careers adviser at the Royal Society of Chemistry, explains: "Our ambassadors go into schools and as well as describing how people use chemistry methods in jobs, they talk about some pretty eclectic jobs."

How else, she asks, would students get to know about chewing-gum scientists?

Useful links

UK Space Agency

BioIndustry Association

Institute of Food Science amp; Technology


National Grid

E-skills UK

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT

Royal Society of Chemistry

Institute of Physics

Institution of Civil Engineers

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