Getting involved with activities that give young people an insight into what engineering is really about is easier than you might think.
The long-running exchange in E&T's letters pages about school STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities is testament to the generosity of the engineers giving time to inspire the next generation. I wonder how many other professions publicly debate options to inspire young people?
This desire to show the value of a career in engineering needs to be harnessed. We are all aware of the need to grow a workforce to achieve the pipeline of talent to fill the 257,000 vacancies estimated to exist by Engineering UK's 'The State of Engineering 2015' report. Few would disagree that engineers themselves are best placed to be at the heart of that effort.
Engineering enterprises employ more than 5.4 million workers in the UK, but only a fraction are doing all they could to support schools. Employers and individual engineers need to work with the education sector to provide inspiration, information and an understanding of engineering skills.
There are positive changes. STEMNET's more than 30,000 'STEM Ambassadors' volunteer in schools across the UK, sharing their enthusiasm. And it works: 90 per cent of pupils are more interested in continuing to study STEM subjects beyond 16 years of age after engaging with a STEM Ambassador. This takes time to translate into professional 'supply', but since 2005 there has been steady growth in the take-up of STEM subjects. Department for Education statistics in 2015 showed that maths is now the most popular A-level subject, accounting for 10.6 per cent of entries – the highest since records began in 1996. Apprenticeships also hold promise for the new generation.
Letters published in E&T reveal that although some readers are engaged STEM Ambassadors, others may be remembering a programme that ran over a decade or more ago; and of course, STEMNET and STEM Ambassadors may be entirely unknown to some.
The STEM Ambassadors help young people see the links between STEM subjects and the real world. They come from a wide range of STEM disciplines: nearly 40 per cent are from an engineering background and more than 40 per cent are female.
STEMNET is an independent charitable organisation providing a bridge between employers and schools. The STEM Ambassadors Programme is flexible so that STEM Ambassadors and employers can engage with schools through a well established infrastructure, without having the worry of covering insurance, training or disclosure and barring checks. As one recent letter in E&T pointed out, there is some bureaucracy involved in becoming a STEM Ambassador; however, this applies for anyone working with children, and allows us to take appropriate insurance.
STEM Ambassadors tell us about their pleasure at seeing students move from disinterest to excitement during an activity when suddenly a theory makes sense. We only require our STEM Ambassadors to carry out one activity a year, helping with a lesson, a careers event or an extra-curricular activity such as a STEM Club, but many are active throughout the year because they find working with the students so rewarding. During STEM Clubs Week many STEM Ambassadors will have arranged activities with clubs.
STEMNET works with 45 local organisations who support teachers to understand how their pupils can get the most from engaging with STEM Ambassadors activities. Local organisations also support STEM Ambassadors to link with schools by matching the topics a school is working on with a STEM Ambassador's expertise.
STEM Ambassadors can find a range of opportunities on our online platform and in regular local newsletters. Once an Ambassador expresses interest in an activity, STEMNET puts them in touch with the teacher. There is never a charge.
To thank STEM Ambassadors we run a national awards scheme. The Most Inspirational STEM Ambassador in 2014 received an expenses-paid visit to CERN donated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. But STEM Ambassadors say the best reward is the enthusiasm of their students.
Having read about the STEM Ambassadors Programme, if you would like to get involved with school STEM activities please visit www.stemnet.org.uk. Alternatively, as a reader of E&T I would love to read about who inspired you into engineering and perhaps you could inspire another reader to do the same for the next generation.
Kirsten Bodley is chief executive of STEMNET