STEMing the skills shortage: How institutions can nurture science education

Why specialization and hands-on time are critical for today’s STEM learners.

STEM-skills-cambridgeAt first glance, arguing that we urgently need to pay more attention to STEM subjects seems alarmist. It’s a well-funded area, almost universally acknowledged to be essential to our social and economic development, and it’s more popular than ever.

I live in the UK, and here alone 27 universities recently received over £200m in STEM funding, and more than 98,000 students were accepted on science courses (an increase of 18 percent) at the start of the 2014/2015 academic year. And these figures pale in comparison to the extent of STEM funding and enrollment in the U.S. So what’s there to complain about?

Unfortunately, whilst such figures are undoubtedly promising, they don’t mean that we can relax, confident that future generations will possess the skills they need to thrive in a digital society. In 1990, Carl Sagan said “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology”, and sadly this still largely holds true today.

Our economic reliance on the tech sector is growing, but employees with the right skills are tough to find. The uptick in STEM graduates should, in theory, mitigate this, but the gap between the STEM skills that people need and the skills that people actually have is still widening. Something needs to be done to address it.

If I haven’t identified the solution in all my years in education, I’ve certainly managed to identify the problem. With all this focus on university enrollment and funding, people lose sight of how we’re meant to get students interested in STEM subjects in the first place. Most pupils are introduced to the sciences at school–and most schools simply aren’t equipped to do them justice.

(Next page: Why specialization is critical)