What happens when you take a group of young people, some air and water rockets and add an astronaut? The answer is not just a soaking wet spaceman but also a brighter future for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education.
Today nearly three in four UK businesses rely on STEM skills in their workforce. What’s more, some 58% of all new jobs are predicted to be STEM related. But are our young people prepared for this future? Not as well as they should be. Back in 2011 43% of schools were sending no girls at all to study physics at A-level. That statistic has improved since then, but we’ve still got a long way to catch up with our counterparts in other countries.
I think we owe it our young people to provide as many opportunities as possible to develop their STEM skills. It’s essential not just for their own futures, but for the future of our nation’s place at the top table of space and other technologies.
I’m standing in a sun-lit field with some Scouts near Farnborough on a beautiful summer evening. All day, some remarkable new aircraft have been filling the skies, banking and climbing dramatically between the trees. But such brilliant engineering doesn’t happen by chance. It starts when a young person is inspired to dream, then develops the skills over time to make those dreams a reality. I remember looking up at the same skies as a kid on a night hike thinking about the universe. Fast forward a few decades and I found myself looking back on Earth from space. That’s a journey I hope some of these children might one day make themselves.
We’re at an outdoor centre and The Farnbough Air Show (literally next door) is just finishing for the day. The group of Scouts from Blackwater Valley District are here to tackle their Astronautics badge. What they don’t know is that I’m here to help. The Scout leader tonight, Emma, explains that she has invited someone who knows a thing or two about space along to help. That’s when I’m summoned from the trees to put them through their paces.
If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get their attention its rockets – some flying as high as 100 feet into the air. The kids are absolutely astounded by the height they achieve. This is one of those precious “wow” moments that can spark a lifetime’s interest in science and engineering. Almost without realising it, the children start to explore the idea of physics and the laws of propulsion and flight – and such moments can lead to big things.
They discuss in groups about the possibility of life on other planets and even build their own space craft. It’s inspiring to see them get so animated about space exploration and their questions are brilliant – from “Is it easier to move around on Earth or in space?’ (the answer is space) to “How many g’s do you pull on your journey up?” (the answer is too many).
I get talking to Tasha, one of the Scouts here this evening. “I thought we were coming here just to play some games,” she says, “So it was a real a surprise to meet a real life astronaut. How many people get the chance to do that? I didn’t know much about rockets and fuel. Now I understand the basics. I already like science. I like the thought of space and the unknown and tonight has encouraged me to learn more.”
As I wave goodbye and head off to my next engagement, I’m left with a renewed optimism about our country’s future. It reminds me that at that heart of digital innovation are people with a passion to push the limits of what we know, question everything and explore the unknown. It reminds me of that great saying: “If the sky’s the limit, how did we get to the moon?”
As part of my role as a Scout ambassador, I tell the world about the fact that Scouting helps young people gain skills for life. But this goes far beyond the traditional map and compass work. They now have 27 STEM-related badges, and each year, over 200,000 of these are awarded. This is inspiring stuff.
Educating young people on all of the possibilities these skills can open up to them is crucial. It ensures that the UK can continue to compete on a global scale. But to do this, we need to increase formal STEM education far beyond current levels. This is why it is so important to teach STEM skills from an early age.