As British Science Week is nearing the end, I can’t help wondering whether the messages are actually getting through – particularly to parents, not just children. Within the Science industry and many schools STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is a hot topic this week in particular, with countless activities going on. However, given how often when I say to fellow parents that I volunteer as a STEM Ambassador they say ‘What is STEM?’, I can’t help worrying that the messages aren’t getting through. I know that parents play a critical role in encouraging the next generation towards STEM careers but how do parents even begin to do that?
The UK skills shortage in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) remains and, according to WES statistics the UK still has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe which is pretty shocking. When you consider that STEM graduates can earn as much as 20% more than their peers, can work in stable, interesting, varied jobs with good opportunities for growth that can make a huge contribution to the world it seems simply ludicrous that we’re not all encouraging our children towards STEM.
Children so often follow in their parents’ footsteps in their career choices, or at least rely on role models which generally come from parents’ friends and family. When it was first suggested to me that I might want to consider a career in Engineering I remember how hard it was for my parents, they were keen to encourage me but, with no Engineers in the family, they had little experience or support to do so. Fortunately I’m a determined (some might say stubborn) sort and made it through but I’d really rather the next generation had an easier run, particularly the girls for whom the path still feels less straightforward and yet can be so rewarding.
So, as parents, what could we be doing?
Look out for and nurture any personal interest in STEM subjects or techniques: this might be to do with animals, nature, conservation, sport, the human body, construction, mechanics, electronics, digital games. etc. It might equally be a natural inclination to observe, question, make, experiment, analyse or problem solve – all key scientific skills.
Expose them to STEM topics, particularly, with strong female role models: even from a tiny age things like books can send the right messages as this recent HuffPost blog underlines, as can magazines, apps, web resources, TV shows, toys and family outings. Look out for local science festivals, events or activities (even as close as your local library), pick books and TV for boys and girls which contradict stereotypes and recognise the knowledge and skills their screen time could give them from science fact to coding skill.
Encourage making, building, coding, experimenting and problem solving in their play: children use play to hone their skills, it doesn’t initially matter what form this takes. So they will be learning STEM skills whether they are making cakes or cars, building towers or fairytale castles, coding stories, games or music, experimenting with tooth paste, mud or a science kit even playing the right video games, board games or puzzles.
Help them understand what opportunities are out there: many children could name very few STEM careers and few realise they are so creative. They don’t understand that an interest in sport could lead to a science career helping swimmers perfect their tumble turn or footballers their goal scoring techniques, an interest in fashion could lead you to innovate embedded electronics or an interest in video games to being part of their development. Take a look at resources like Where STEM Can Take You, STEM Learning and WISE and encourage your child’s school to do all they can from clubs focused on STEM, coding, making, and robotics to entering competitions like First LEGO League, Robotics and making the most of the free STEM Ambassadors.
I accept (grudgingly) that not everyone has an interest in STEM topics but I’m absolutely confident that many have an interest that is not fully realised. Engage with this topic today and you could watch your child flourish in a fulfilling STEM career or even change the world…