Is a new ‘Golden Age’ of STEM dawning? In recent months, several compelling factors have emerged to foster the belief that STEM-related practical skills, in all their forms (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), are capturing the country’s attention.
Before the Covid-19 crisis began, there were already signs of a move in this direction. The digital revolution, widening skills mismatches (even gaps) in certain sectors, returns on investment and employability from higher education, and the implications of Brexit were some of the reasons cited for prioritising STEM-related capabilities, by students and politicians alike.
Now, the Coronavirus crisis has propelled scientists into the spotlight, as they expertly guide the government in formulating policy. Technology, as used in Zoom calls for example, has enabled some semblance of business life and education to continue during lockdown. Engineers from all over the country have used their ingenuity to repurpose equipment to meet NHS PPE requirements, and the mathematical modelling of the all-important ‘R number’ has been key to devising a safe path back to a ‘new normal’ way of living. STEM practitioners in all four areas have kept our country going.
This has also created a new class of STEM role models. Coincidentally, outside of the crisis, we have been reminded of others too. The historic launch of the privately-funded Space X rocket brings back memories of the Apollo missions of the 1960s, which created an age of STEM ‘heroes’. And the engineer and inventor James Dyson’s rise to the top of the Sunday Times ‘Rich List’, a position usually held by financiers or those with inherited wealth, is a great reminder that a background in engineering can lead to tremendous financial success.
As we begin to emerge from lockdown, thoughts are turning to how, practically, lessons from the crisis will shape the future and, specifically, which aspects of education and skills must be prioritised for our economy to recover as quickly and sustainably as possible. As well as reappraising the invaluable role of all technicians, highly trained ‘doers’, to society – we now know that we can’t live without them – commentators are emphasising the need for more STEM-related capabilities:
- The World Economic Forum highlights that many of the skills people need to be employable during and after COVID-19 are digital;
- McKinsey and Company, the strategy consultancy, suggests that the move of production closer to end users, resulting from the crisis, could trigger the restructuring of manufacturing supply chains, thereby leading to greater on-shoring and heightened local requirements for skills at all levels;
- Greater investment in both green technologies and the expertise to meet sustainability targets has been suggested by many as a likely outcome too;
- And, of course, vital investment must be made in the fields of science and health, to bolster preparations for any crisis in the future.
Nurturing an interest in and passion for all things STEM-related needs to start somewhere. While government policy is focused on specialist education pathways after the age of 16, the reality is that this is simply too late for many young people, particularly girls. By the time students reach 16, their engagement with the wonders of science, as well as their enthusiasm for the inventiveness and creativity of the practical aspects of technology and engineering, are already lost. This is why University Technical Colleges (UTCs) take students at age 13 or 14 and encourage their interest in STEM subjects to blossom through practical application. UTCs prioritise a blend of learning so that our students really do understand the real-world use of the theory they are taught. As a result, they leave UTCs academically secure, technically able, and passionate about all aspects of STEM.
Of course, UTCs are just one piece of a vastly complex puzzle of skills requirements in this country. If this new ‘Golden Age’ of STEM-related practical skills, necessary to get our country back on its feet, is to take hold, the government must lead a co-ordinated approach to developing these skills. These three policy initiatives are needed to ‘jump start’ this process:
- The Department for Education must ‘release the shackles’ on schools imposed by measuring accountability through the lens of the academically-focused Ebacc; this requires schools to prioritise languages and humanities over technical and creative subjects for GCSE students. This focus felt increasingly out-of-step with the real world before the Covid-19 crisis, and now feels almost disrespectful to those who have navigated us through the pandemic.
- There is little doubt that the market for jobs and apprenticeships for school leavers this September will be very challenging. However, it is vital that young people entering all-important STEM careers can continue to realise their ambitions, as they would have expected prior to the crisis. Financial guarantees to fund apprenticeships and incentives for school leavers entering these fields must be made available. This will unquestionably yield a very high return on investment for the economy in future years.
- The government has rightly prioritised recruiting teachers of maths and sciences by offering generous training bursaries. With the inevitable rise in applications for teacher training this year (increases occur during recessions), the incentives for training prospective engineering teachers, through the design and technology route for example, should be on par with those offered to teachers of other STEM subjects.
Through implementing meaningful and lasting changes, such as those highlighted above, policy makers would recognise the invaluable role played by the STEM ‘heroes’ of the crisis, and at the same time would enable the country to meet the critical needs of the economy as it recovers. This really would mark the dawn of a new ‘Golden Age’ for STEM.