The Big Question: is enough being done to get students to study science and engineering?

Yes, of course we want you to read this article and enjoy it immensley, but you have to play your part too. Read about the issue at hand, hear both sides of the argument and then weigh in with your comments!



Why is there a shortage of people studying science, technology, engineering and maths?

Recent research by the website Women in Technology found that many people think “boring IT classes in school” are to blame for the lack of interest in technical subjects. “There is a definite perception that courses in these subjects are dull and difficult and there seems to be a distinct lack of awareness about the array of opportunities that studying these subjects can provide,” says Maggie Berry, director of career and networking for the website.

Another problem is the fact that many people in this country think of subjects such as engineering as only involving oily rags and overalls. Go to Italy, France or Germany and engineers have a very high status, similar to doctors and lawyers.

Why does it matter?

The Prime Minister himself said that technology is at the heart of lifting Britain out of the economic downturn and is vital if the UK wants to remain competitive. At the moment, this isn’t happening: 58 per cent of employers report difficulty recruiting people with science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills.

Is there a particular shortage of females studying these subjects?

Yes: women make up only 20 per cent of the UK technology workforce. Girls are often put off because of stereotypical assumptions that the work will be “geeky” and male-dominated.

Has there always been a shortage of people studying these subjects?

“There has been a steady decline in several key disciplines that business and industry places high value on – for example, the number of physics, chemistry and engineering students has fallen as a proportion of all undergraduates from 16 per cent to 11.5 per cent over the last decade,” says Philip Whiteman, CEO of Semta, the skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies. “This situation will be exacerbated by future demographics if it is not addressed.”

Are these subjects fun to learn?

There’s no doubt that some school teachers make these subjects almost unbearably boring and dry. However, that is changing and university degree courses are a different kettle of fish altogether, offering students practical, innovative and exciting learning opportunities that always have a link to real life. Many degree courses offer students work placements, for example.

What’s in it for you if you study one of these subjects?

According to the CBI, 775,000 new roles will require a higher level Stem skills by 2014. Many of these jobs tend to be highly paid, offering plenty of early responsibility and autonomy and the opportunity to work both in the UK and overseas on exciting, often life-changing projects. Increasingly, graduates in these subjects get a chance to work on sustainable solutions to climate change problems.

But what about the recession?

Obviously there are fewer jobs out there at the moment, but there is still a wide range of graduate schemes on offer. Businesses in these subjects realise that if they don’t invest in graduates they will find themselves with an even bigger skills gap further down the line. By the time you graduate, the recession may be over anyway!

The argument

Yes, enough is being done



Sir Anthony Cleaver, former chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the former chief executive of IBM



“It is incredibly challenging to get young people excited about these subjects, but there is now a real determination to address this. In fact, in an unprecedented partnership, 47 organisations including the Government, charitable trusts, businesses and the wider science and engineering communities have united under one umbrella to motivate young people to embrace Stem subjects.”

Professor Matthew Harrison, director of education programmes at The Royal Academy of Engineering

“There is enough being done by Government and many others – there is no lack of initiatives out there. What needs to change is students being more reflective when making their choices. What you choose to study at university really matters; that one decision can shape your whole life. Students also need to remember that a rag-bag of subject choices at age 17 isn't going to maximise your chances of a good degree and a well-paid job in something worthwhile like engineering. That’s why The Royal Academy of Engineering places engineering role models in schools through its London Engineering Project. These young engineers know the benefits of making the right choices at school.”

Charlie Ball, deputy research director of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit

“There have been a number of initiatives trying to get more students to study these subjects, but the reality is that we had fewer UK-domiciled graduates in physical sciences and engineering and technology subjects in 2007 than we did in 2000. So although these initiatives might have seen some success in some areas – maths and biological sciences have seen rises – they have not worked for other important subjects. This is not through a lack of effort but because not enough is known about why students choose to do, or not to do, these subjects. It is hard to influence the decisions of students when we do not know when or how they make them.”

No, not enough is being done

Holly Batchelor is in her second year studying physics at the University of St Andrews

“Science at senior school does not always relate to examples of science in the real world. When kids are young they love science because it’s about things like rockets and bacteria, all the interesting stuff. But when they hit secondary school the equations and difficulty can become a bit overwhelming.

“Something needs to be done to maintain pupils’ enthusiasm in the earliest years of senior school. Although young people may not find these subjects easy, studying them can really open doors. I only recently realised how applicable these subjects are to almost any job – and it’s vital to make that connection early.

I support the Science: So What? So Everything campaign which aims to increase people’s understanding of science and increase the number of people studying STEM subjects and entering related careers. We really need to make this happen.”

Julie McManus, senior scientific adviser at L’Oreal

“At school, I was considered unusual for wanting to study science, yet now, as a senior scientist at L’Oréal, my friends are jealous of my job. I believe that the media and teachers need to help change perceptions about careers in science and encourage students to consider science as acceptable as studying drama or English. The need for more visible role models in science is also key; when you ask a child to name a football player they could probably name at least five, but could they do the same for scientists?”

Terry Marsh, executive director of the WISE Campaign (Women into Science, Engineering and Construction)

“Until we start to research and understand the long-term processes that result in young people, especially girls, rejecting science or engineering as a possible career, all current efforts to influence and recruit are based on guesswork and, as such, unlikely to succeed. The complex interweaving of influences that result in many capable students not wanting to be scientists or engineers – peer-group pressure, media, parents, teachers and careers advisers – do not happen the night before options day in Year 9.”

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