Whilst science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have a profound impact on our everyday lives, we continue to see a lack of engagement from students of all ages in these subjects. This is despite STEM subjects being considered one of the accelerating forces for future economic growth across the UK. Issues such as sustainability, managing the planet's resources and using renewable energy appropriately are all challenges that can benefit from the work of mathematicians, scientists and engineers across many disciplines.
'The Internet of Things' now plays a growing role in our daily lives and data is an increasingly valued asset in all industries. Businesses need a workforce qualified in computational thinking and with the ability to analyse and draw conclusions from huge volumes of data. It is therefore crucial that the educational system constructs an environment that promotes these skills. As society is constantly changing, the education sector needs to be able to adapt, to effectively equip students with the skills needed to address challenges that don't yet exist, and to rise to the different learning styles of individuals.
Inspiring young people to pursue STEM subjects beyond compulsory education and into industry is key to addressing the skills gap we're currently facing. Changes in society are driving up demand for graduates of STEM subjects, and unless we meet this demand we are at risk of restricting economic growth. Consequently, it is important that we find new and interactive ways to engage students in these subjects.
Educational organisations, such as The Cambridge Science Centre, through partnerships with businesses such as MathWorks, aim to do just this; primary school students in these subjects are encouraged to engage in hands-on exploration into STEM subjects through an array of learning tools that children can interact with on a physical and sensory level. This approach immerses students in a scientific environment that is fun as well as educational and goes beyond traditional teaching methods.
For example, Go Ballistic - developed jointly by the Cambridge Science Centre and MathWorks - engages students from 5 years old to A-Level. The maths workshop encourages children to explore the relationship between launch angle and distance travelled using the concept of a human cannonball. Students are challenged to predict where they should place their net to catch the cannon ball and, using data they gather throughout the session, can develop models in an app developed in MATLAB.
Another way we can facilitate hands-on learning in a classroom environment is through the integration of low cost hardware devices such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi into the curriculum. These devices can help make classroom tuition more engaging as students are able to bring theory to life in fun and interactive ways. By connecting the hardware to support packages it becomes more accessible and children are quickly able to achieve visible results. When the students can see what can be achieved, and they participate in creating technology, they become more engaged in STEM subjects while also developing transferrable skills such as team work, problem solving and critical thinking.
One major challenge facing the STEM industry as a whole is reaching underserved communities such as those without local access to science and discovery centres. This is where organisations such as Cambridge Science Centre can play a role; exhibits are portable so through the 'On the Road' programme it is able to transform a classroom, shopping centre or even a church into pop-up, hands-on, science centre. This approach has a huge impact on not only students and teachers but also provides a fun family experience, giving parents an insight into the topics and facilitating conversation. Families are able to discover together the excitement and variety of applications of STEM subjects.
Collaboration between businesses, academia and organisations is key to promoting STEM subjects and addressing the skills gap. In fact, a 2013 study by MathWorks revealed that more than half (52%) of employers and almost two-thirds (64%) of academics included in the study think that industry does not currently work closely enough with universities. Businesses can help by facilitating educational projects, such as Go Ballistic, that enable a holistic approach while developing different ways of thinking that encourage creativity and innovation. They should help develop materials that support the curriculum while also mirroring real-life applications and place a higher value on longer-term project-based learning.
Andy Donnelly is head of development at Cambridge Science Centre and Coorous Mohtadi is a senior academic technical specialist at MathWorks.