We often hear how our children need "inspiring" into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. The reason for the common refrain is that these are the areas in which policy makers believe there are good careers in prospect, where the UK can preserve a competitive advantage in our industries and where there will be a need for talented and committed students coming from schools, further and higher education.
However, if the benefits are so obvious why should students need inspiring? Shouldn't the message from the media be consistently positive about STEM as the exciting place to be? Shouldn't their parents and other influencers all be diligently pointing them in the right direction? Sadly this isn't always the case. Perceptions of STEM careers among 12/13-year-olds remain pretty bleak with research repeatedly finding that their image of an engineer is of someone with dirty hands who works on cars. Scientists remain characters wearing glasses and white coats, most probably with an uncontrollable hairstyle. Even where students show interest in science they don't see themselves following a related career. Clearly the input of the media and other influencers is not challenging such caricatures sufficiently, so the role of teachers to inspire students becomes even more crucial.
So how can teachers do this? - they can provide personal role models of course, but the demands of the curriculum leave little space to allow students to grasp the connection between the science and maths they are learning and the real world of work beyond the school gates. Teachers are asked to turn around the misconceptions that the rest of our culture still happily promotes and to provide the captains of the STEM industries of the future without a great deal of time and space in which to do it.
Our belief at EDT is that one way to challenge the misconceptions about STEM careers is to enable students to work on real projects involving the STEM disciplines that enable them to link their studies to real life. At the same time they can be provided with industry mentors who give them role models to aspire to in the STEM industries. We work with companies who are convinced that it is in their interests to spend resources engaging with local schools and we provide teachers with the resources they need to facilitate the process.
The schemes that we run in schools rely on teachers to support their students and guide them to get a true understanding of the opportunities of STEM careers. On occasion they need to work outside normal hours, supervising the groups of young people involved in the projects. We need them to take time and effort to inspire the students to undertake the projects in the first instance, and we need them to make the preparations that are required for allowing mentors from companies to engage with young people and for students to make off-site visits to the companies.
Of course there are benefits to teachers in this work - accreditation from the College of Teachers, useful industry links in the community, CPD benefits and excellent project work for their CV's, but for the most part the 2000 teachers across 1700 schools that we work with do it because they genuinely believe in what they are doing and want to enhance the career prospects of the children they teach.
As a charity we deeply appreciate their commitment and in a small way are trying to recognise the effort involved by making annual teacher awards at regional and national level to those who make exceptional contributions. Our national 2011 award went to Peter Crompton a teacher at Fortismere School in the London Borough of Haringey. Peter has been involved in EDT programmes since 1994 and he is involved in some way in every EDT scheme. As well as regularly involving Fortismere teams in EDT programmes Peter has played an active role in helping EDT develop and trial new programmes and has contributed to various support and advisory groups for the organisation. Alongside all this, Peter also acts as a mentor to teachers in other schools helping them to get the best from EDT's Go4SET programme for Year 8/9.
Peter is not an exception; there are teachers across the country making similar contributions of time and energy beyond their daily teaching load in order to give their students the experiences of STEM industries which our policy-makers hope will lead them to seriously consider careers in these vital industries. The contribution of these teachers is inspiring in every way and needs to be recognised by all those who wish to promote STEM courses and careers.