Some schoolchildren getting their learn on

Children’s love for STEM on the decline, IET survey finds

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A survey and series of interviews conducted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology has found that growing pressures in formal education are having a serious impact on school students’ perceptions of STEM subjects.

According to the report, Inspiring the next generation of engineers, interest in science has fallen 10 per cent among 9-12-year-olds in the past four years, interest in design and technology fell by 12 per cent and interest in ICT and computing fell by 14 per cent.

The survey also found that the pressure of having to teach a full curriculum in preparation for exams was the largest perceived obstacle in engaging students in STEM subjects; 72 per cent of primary school teachers and 63 per cent of secondary school teachers cited time pressure as a cause in the decline in interest. Other major factors included lack of resources (particularly in primary education), class distractions, and lack of pupil interest.

“STEM subjects are difficult subjects to teach, especially when specialised equipment or technology is required in the classroom,” David Lakin, IET head of education, commented. “It’s crucial that schools engage children in STEM at a young age, but we’ve discovered that a lack of resources, the mounting time pressures and teachers’ own confidences in delivering STEM subjects present huge difficulties in achieving this.”

According to the IET, these findings are concerning given that qualifications in technical subjects like physics and maths are often a necessity to enter careers in engineering and technology.

“After parents, teachers are the next major influence of children, especially at primary age, where the presence of an inspirational teacher can set up patterns for life,” said Lakin. “It’s crucial schools engage children in STEM at a young age but we’ve discovered a lack of resource and mounting time pressures present huge difficulties in achieving this.

“It’s concerning to see a 10 per cent drop in children’s interests in science and one we have to turn around if we are to secure the next generation of engineers and technologists.”

Despite a downturn in affection for STEM subjects, more than half of children acknowledged engineering as a skilled career, while approximately two in five described it as interesting, difficult, creative and/or important. The children suggested that more school trips, visits from engineers and joining a school engineering or technology club could help them learn more about what engineers do.

The survey also confirmed the stubborn gender divide in perceptions of technical subjects. While maths was named overall as students’ favourite subject, girls aged 6-15 picked art and English as their favourite subjects, while their male peers picked maths and ICT.

The girls surveyed were interested in careers in arts, education, childcare, healthcare, hair and beauty and agriculture (including animal care), while boys expressed more of an interest in ICT, engineering, technology, sport, construction and property and public service. Thirteen per cent of girls surveyed said that they would consider working in engineering, and 11 per cent said that they would consider working in technology.

Parents – the greatest influence on children’s attitudes to subjects and careers – were found to mirror their children’s views on STEM careers. Parents tended to think that their daughters would be most interested in arts, education, childcare, healthcare and hair and beauty, and think that their sons would be most keen on careers in technology, IT, engineering and sport.

According to the IET, emphasising the wide range of skills valued in engineering – including artistic and design skills – could be an effective means of widening the appeal of engineering careers. The young girls consulted in the survey described themselves as very interested in problem solving and designing things; skills highly valued by engineers in additional to ‘hard’ technical skills such as writing code.

“Over 203,000 people with engineering skills will be required each year to meet demand through to 2024, with an estimate that there will be an annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers and technicians to fill these roles,” Lakin said. “But engineers need other skills such as art and design, which play a huge role in engineering careers. It’s important that we emphasise these aspects among parents, teachers and pupils alike to widen appeal.”

“As this research shows, we simply have to get better at showing girls that maths, science, and technology open doors to exciting, well-paid jobs where they can make a real difference to the world,” Helen Wollaston, CEO of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign, told E&T. The campaign has launched its own outreach program, My Skills My Life, which aims to show students how their skills and personalities may be suited to different types of STEM careers.

“Our experience is that when girls see the difference they can make in the world through engineering, science, and other STEM areas, they engage with it much more positively.

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