Hellen Ward explains why outreach events are so important to help young people learn and become inspired about STEM careers.
The skills shortage in the UK has been discussed for more than a decade. In 2017 the Telegraph published an article that suggested “The UK’s engineering industry is facing a skills shortage of unprecedented levels – if we need 1.8 million people trained by 2025, they can’t all be white males”. This article drew attention to both a concrete number as well as a diversity concern.
The gender difference in educational choices in STEM subjects is stark. In 2017 across the UK only 3.8% of girls’ A level entries were in physics, compared with 16.9 % of boys’ entries.
In 2017 the number of both girls and boys from Kent and Medway selecting STEM A-levels was lower than the national average. The numbers applying to study physics in the region were 3.1% of girls and 14% of boys. These numbers were instrumental in the decision by Canterbury Christ University to create the EDGE Hub and to focus Engineering and STEM outreach.
There is compelling evidence that STEM outreach can and does change outcomes. Engineering UK identifies that young people attending a STEM careers activity in the previous 12 months were over three times more likely to consider a career in engineering than those who had not. Suggesting that STEM outreach work and engagement with STEM careers not only helps to support the uptake of STEM subjects, but it also helps teachers as it provides a simplified STEM landscape.
It is great to see that the growing collaboration in Kent and Medway for STEM outreach is showing signs of impact with the increase in the numbers of young people taking part in STEM.
Looking at physics A-level entries once again for comparison, in 2021 they had risen for both girls and boys. Although, the increase does not yet reach the levels of 1.8 million by 2025, but at a time of falling birth-rates this is data that is worth celebrating at a time of uncertainty.
However, the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced the numbers of young people who have engaged with STEM career events. Last year Engineering UK found that 68% of teachers agreed that a lack of teacher time and Covid-19 restrictions had negatively impacted their ability to run activities. These activities are instrumental to informing young people about future careers.
During the pandemic many of our outreach activities, like many others, were run online where they were available to be accessed any time of the day for about a month (figure 1). Interestingly, feedback from girls suggested that they enjoyed this way of learning as they felt they had more time to explore the events, they learnt more and felt less shy of asking questions.
Our online version of our events also allowed the opportunity for whole cohorts of young people to attend an event, rather than the 30 students who already knew they wanted to pursue STEM careers. The events have allowed young people to share the experience with their families and to return to activities on more than one occasion.
We are looking forward to engaging with hundreds more local school children during British Science week (11th March 2022), where once again the Stem Hub will be creating online opportunities in collaboration with others. Find out more here.
Hellen Ward is Director of STEM Hub. Based at Canterbury Christ church University, the STEM Hub provides schools and colleges in the south east with free and impartial advice and guidance on STEM activities and careers, enabling young people to make informed choices about their futures and helping to raise the profile of the role science and engineering in Kent and Medway.