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'We need more than "The Big Bang Theory" to switch on young people to Stem subjects'

Angela Strank, chief scientist at BP, writes:

Geologists are frequently the butt of humour in The Big Bang Theory, the hugely popular American TV sitcom in which the two socially-challenged research physicists are lead characters.

As a geologist myself I’m more than happy to laugh-off the gags in return for priceless primetime publicity for science. I’m firmly in the camp that considers The Big Bang Theory to be doing a helpful job of assimilating science and scientists into popular culture, albeit with some typecasting along the way.

With the show now seemingly available on at least one TV channel at any time of day and night, it is probably doing as much to acclimatise us to science in everyday life as more formal educational activities promoting the Stem subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Science, technology and engineering are powerful drivers of economic growth, so it is critical to encourage more young people to opt for these subjects at school and university. It is equally critical to showcase Stem careers as an attractive option among the many choices offered to highly talented graduates. At BP we recognise this and in the UK invest about £1.75 million every year in programmes promoting such subjects.

Last week, for example, we revealed the winners of the BP Ultimate Stem Challenge, a new project-based competition for 11- to 14-year-olds that we set up with the Science Museum and Stemnet, an independent charitable body that supports engagement with these subjects in schools and elsewhere.

This year’s challenge to the young teams has been to try to tackle the real world problems of keeping cool, keeping warm, and avoiding the dangers of dehydration. We received video entries from hundreds of youngsters from secondary schools right across the UK and I’m personally delighted with the level of response and the innovative solutions we have seen. But it is premature to pop the champagne corks. The true impact of the Ultimate Stem Challenge, as with all Stem activity, is almost impossible to measure directly. Over the next decade or so, how many of the Ultimate STEM Challengers will turn into engineers or technologists as a result of this early experience?

What we do know is that it is vital to convey how fascinating it is to study these subjects, and how life-enhancing a career in this area can be. There is a wide consensus that Britain’s future economic sustainability depends not only on financial and other services but on manufacturing, engineering, creative industries and other sectors requiring Stem skills.

However, according to EngineeringUK, each year the UK is producing only half the number of engineers with the right qualifications to fill nearly two million job openings expected by 2020 – let alone producing as many engineers as economic competitors in Asia. We are talking here about job vacancies for people with the skills that are essential for designing and constructing schools and hospitals, creating Olympic stadia and, yes, producing the energy that warms our homes, fills our cars and powers our workplaces.

At BP we are fortunate to be seen as a desirable employer by students studying Stem subjects. But we recognise that the more talented young people with the right qualifications, the greater the benefit to the economy as a whole, and we are committed to helping tackle the skills gap. All of this means it is crucial to be engaging and inspiring young minds with the potential of Stem subjects long before students come to make their GCSE choices at the age of 14. And with such a mountain to climb, there is a need for action on many fronts.

Parents are the starting point. Behavioural scientists talk about attitudes and habits forming and hardening by as young as the age of seven, and much research has been done that highlights the perceptions, misconceptions and unconscious bias within society towards science and engineering and careers in them. Parents can help by being open-minded themselves about Stem subjects and careers, and by challenging outmoded career stereotypes.

Role models and mentors also have a very important contribution to make. Celebrities like the multi-talented Professor Brian Cox are clearly a boon, but we can look closer to home too. At school I was steered, like so many girls at the time, towards a career as a teacher, nurse, doctor or secretary. All admirable professions, but my own list included judge, astronaut and oil refiner as well. As it turned out, I was instinctively drawn towards exploration, travel and the natural environment, and found geology to be the passport I needed.

One would expect the gender bias of a generation ago to have faded, but it remains the case that – for a variety of reasons – girls and young women still disproportionately opt out of science, engineering and technology subjects at GCSE, A-level, vocational study and higher education. With only about one in six of all engineering and technology places at UK universities taken up by women, a better gender balance would go a long way to filling the gap.

Ultimately the answer lies in a relatively new but helpful piece of jargon called “science capital” an appropriately scientific construct that has been defined as “science-related qualifications, understanding, knowledge (about science and how it works), interest and social contacts (e.g. knowing someone who works in a science-related job)”.

The higher the science capital a young person enjoys, the more likely they will be to pursue a career in the sciences, technology and engineering. Along with parents, teachers and schools, those of us in Stem-dependent businesses should feel an obligation to generate as much science capital as we possibly can – and to welcome all the help we can get from The Big Bang Theory and its gags.

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