‘Oily hands and overalls’ image puts pupils off Stem

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Subjects that could lead to lucrative careers are being undervalued by parents and universities, teachers say

Students are put off taking technology and engineering-related subjects at Higher, potentially missing out on a wide range of careers, because of the persistent image that they are about “oily hands” and “overalls”, a conference has heard.

Both parents and universities were to blame for undervaluing subjects such as engineering science, delegates at the event were told. Parents in particular still had to be convinced of the value of such subjects, according to Lynsey Clark, a design and technology teacher at Bannockburn High in Stirling.

“Ultimately it’s not the children that make the [subject] choices, it’s the parents,” Ms Clark told the Edinburgh-based crowd. “Parents are telling them ‘Take this and that’, and they maybe don’t understand the relevance of our subjects. What we end up with is the kids voting with their feet and going with the common courses they understand and are confident and comfortable with.

“My subject is put on the back burner for the pupils to return to in S6 when they’ve got their ‘real subjects’.”

‘Holding a spanner’

In an earlier discussion among delegates at the Stem Scotland 2016 conference, organised by Holyrood Events, participants complained that engineering had a “dirty” image associated with “overalls” in greasy workshops.

Stephen Doran, managing director of defence technology company Raytheon UK said: “In central Europe, engineering is held in far higher esteem. In the UK psyche, engineering means oily hands holding a spanner.”

Universities were also culpable because they failed to recognise the courses in their entry requirements, said Gareth Surgey, an engineering science teacher at Queen Anne High in Fife. He bemoaned the fact that one of his top students wanted to study engineering but was told by universities to pursue physics at Higher rather than engineering science.

University entry requirements were often set by admissions staff, not academics, and some “very, very ignorant and arbitrary” decisions could be made, said Susan McLaren, a senior lecturer in design and technology at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education.

“It’s about trying to get the ear of the people to make the argument to turn things round,” she added. “But in universities it’s not always easy to find the right people to speak with.”

Parents had a huge influence over the career choices of their children, acknowledged Eileen Prior, director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, but they were not a different breed. If parents were undervaluing Stem careers there was a societal issue at play that would also affect teachers, she said.

A spokesman for the University of Edinburgh, said that the suitability of different qualifications for admission to the institution was reviewed by a group of both academics and professional admissions staff.

He explained that for the university’s undergraduate and master’s degree in engineering, the Higher in the subject was accepted.


Coding at the core

If there is no room for computer coding in the core school curriculum then “something has to go”, argues an education boss at the second biggest software firm in the world.

Iris Lanny, programme manager of the Oracle Academy in the UK and Ireland says: “By 2020, basic coding skills will be needed in 10 per cent of all jobs; I don’t think 10 per cent of all jobs will require French, German or Spanish.”

She adds: “If teachers are saying there is no room in the curriculum to add something else at its core, then something has to go – that’s how important this is.”

Another industry leader, Polly Purvis – chief executive of Scotland IS, the trade body for the ICT industry – is calling for computing science to be delivered through the maths curriculum, particularly at primary.

Both women spoke at a Stem Scotland 2016 conference held in Edinburgh last week.

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