Maybe I am too close to the subject, but I am not alone in thinking that this week's National Science and Engineering Week, and the Big Bang Fair at the NEC that is at its heart, is really very important.
We are a nation built on our manufacturing strength, our ability to innovate, and the excellence of our science, engineering and technology sectors. The science and engineering professions are the lifeblood of our current industrial base and, we are told, of our future prospects for economic growth as a nation. Yet public perception of these industries and the people who work in them is not as high as it should be. Mark Elbourne, General Electric's UK President and CEO spoke last month about the lack of status of, and lack of respect for, engineers. He pointed out that such low public esteem influenced children's perceptions and that schools are not sufficiently geared to correct their attitudes to the subject. Indeed, this was echoed many a time at the recent conference of the manufacturer's organisation EEF, where the skills pipeline and the image of manufacturing were bemoaned time and again from the floor and the stage.
EDT works with business and schools to inspire children into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. As part of our internal quality control we survey over 2,000 12 to 14 year olds each year about their attitudes to scientists and engineers. The results confirm that there is work to do, with too many initial perceptions of engineers focusing on "dirty hands", "repairs cars" and "wears overalls", and not enough viewing them as "professional" or "well paid". Similarly scientists are not typically viewed as "professional" or "well paid", albeit that they are recognised as being "clever" and "logical".
To maintain our international strength in science and engineering the UK needs to generate significant increases in the proportions of scientists and engineers coming out of our education system. Increasing demand and dropping school rolls over the next ten years combine to present a looming recruitment problem for these vital industries, and the education system needs to respond. Mark Elbourne is in a good position to know, when he says "Young engineers have the world in the palm of their hands; the appetite for them is insatiable." A lot of good work is being done to inspire positive views of STEM subjects, views that need to be formed as early as 14 to inform pupils' choice of subjects to study at GSCE and A level. We need to keep up the positive work which is being undertaken by many organisations to challenge the perceptions which lead our children to ignore careers which offer them great opportunities and are vital to the country's future prosperity.
This is why initiatives like National Science and Engineering Week are vital and it would be good to see a greater volume of support from politicians and other opinion formers to get positive messages out about the importance of science and engineering and to encourage students and their families into a more positive outlook. Yet more is needed than Science and Engineering week and there are many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiatives in schools, including those run by EDT. It is probably in focusing more resource on these that the best hope can be found.
Our own experience is that pupils' perceptions can be significantly affected by the information and inspiration that is provided by relatively straightforward exposure to science and engineering projects and contact with mentors from industry. The survey work highlighted above was undertaken with year 8 and 9 pupils before they took part in Go4SET, a programme which involves them working on an environmental project connected with their school and being mentored by staff from local science and engineering companies. This experience results in a significant change in attitudes when the same survey is completed by the pupils at the end of the programme. Over 62% say they are more likely to study STEM subjects at school than before the programme (34% unchanged).
This experience confirms the findings of research by the Education and Employers taskforce in February which found a strong link between activities involving employers, and young peoples' career choices and prospects. The Taskforce confirms that there is "compelling evidence that young people are especially attentive and trusting of first hand information about jobs and career pathways received from employers". It therefore seems that, as well as important activities like National Science and Engineering Week and the Big Bang Fair, there is an ongoing requirement to engage pupils at school. We need to ensure that they undertake real projects, and are mentored by real scientists and engineers, in order to make the significant impact which is required to fill the science and engineering jobs which are coming available in the next ten years.
Mark Elbourne is right to ring alarm bells about the need to correct the faulty public perception of science and engineering careers. There is a great deal being done but I am concerned that there is still much to do, particularly among "hard to reach" pupils at schools with challenges of their own which make extra-curricular STEM programmes hard to accommodate.
But as a first step lets all shout as loud as we can about National Science and Engineering Week and the Big Bang Fair.
Follow Dr Gordon Mizner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheEDTUK