THE BLOG

Mind the Skills Gap - Encouraging Diversity in STEM Industries

28/07/2015 16:28 BST | Updated 27/07/2016 10:59 BST

A recent report from the Campaign for Science and Engineering highlighted that disabled individuals are less likely to work in STEM, only 8% of British engineers are women, and pupils who may be socially disadvantaged are less likely to be taught science by a specialist teacher.

These statistics may seem surprising; however there are some encouraging signs of progress. In the last two years, the number of women working as professional engineers in the UK has gone up by 13,255 - more than double the number in 2012.

However, the bigger diversity picture is more than gender stereotypes. A more diverse STEM workforce is not simply desirable in terms of equality, but necessary if we are to maximise individual opportunity and meet economic need.

This needs to start at school, and teachers have an important role to play in encouraging diversity. Research has shown that primary teachers' knowledge and confidence in their subjects can have a positive impact on students' attitudes and progression in STEM subjects. Project-based learning, a teaching approach that encourages exploration of authentic problems, accommodates different learning styles by stimulating students to discover complex problems at their own pace. This method allows teachers to cross content boundaries, and thus engage student more effectively.

Integrating low-cost and accessible hardware, such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi, into the curriculum supports project-based learning approaches. BY getting hands-on with this hardware students are able to explore real-world problems and bring theory to life. Key to the success is that hardware facilitates projects that are fun and inspiring for students - they can work on applications ranging from robotics to signal processing to control systems. In doing so they're also learning approaches and skills that are relevant to their future careers.

There also needs to be a cultural shift in the way that STEM-based industries are perceived. Getting all ages and genders on board to highlight what's so exciting about these industries and raising awareness of the variety of applications, the value that engineering and technology brings to our everyday lives and the creativity involved in related careers will help.

Support also needs to come from outside the traditional school environment. For example, initiatives including science and discovery centres, code clubs and maker communities are a great way to get young people investigating STEM by encouraging them to learn, create and collaborate. They flip the traditional approach to teaching by engaging people in something fun first, and then exploring the theory behind it. Many of these initiatives are also suitable for families, encouraging joint interaction and learning.

The Government also has a role to play. The campaign for science and technology recently stated that diversity needs to be integrated throughout government policy making for STEM if we are to see real change. As part of their commitment to diversity the Government should be taking the lead on the diversity agenda, working to ensure that there are no barriers to under-represented groups progressing into and within Government and linked public bodies, particularly those associated with STEM where there is not a strong history of diversity in leadership.

Finally, the best people to support aspiring engineers and technologists are those already in the industry. It's up to us to lead the charge in helping groups of young men and women become the next generation of engineers, mathematicians and software developers. We need to act as role models and become more visible in the work we do. We will increase diversity in STEM if we raise the profile of those already in STEM careers. There has to be increased collaboration between industry, academia and society in order to shift attitudes and ensure that young people are able to carve their own paths in the STEM subjects and beyond.