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)

Spread too thin

Schools don’t specialize in STEM subjects anything like enough. Instead, they try to cover as many subjects as possible. And while this ambition to create universally able students is laudable, it unfortunately means that schools are forced to spread already limited resources far too thinly. Consequently, when schools do come to teach STEM subjects, they are unable to do so in enough detail to actually engage students. Schools skim across a range of stem subjects – normally including IT, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Maths – without giving students sufficient time to develop a real interest in any of them.

Whenever possible then, schools should specialize in STEM subjects. But if this isn’t possible, it’s a good idea to widen the range of extracurricular activities available to students so that they cover a range of STEM interests.

All science is not the same

Remember: most students who are engaged with STEM subjects aren’t interested in all of them at once. They’re interested in astronomy, medicine, or electronics. No one would assume that someone who’s interested in history must also enjoy Spanish, because they like the humanities. But people do often make similar assumptions about scientists. So for after-school societies, go beyond putting on a generalist ‘Science Club’. A student interested in astrophysics should be able to attend an after-school group focused on space; someone who wants to be a doctor should be able to sign up to a Medical Society.

Really utilize the lab

Furthermore, there is too much emphasis placed on textbooks in classrooms. A degree of old fashioned book-learning is necessary in every discipline, and STEM is certainly no exception, but this approach is far too dominant in today’s classrooms. There’s no easier way to make a fascinating, mind-bending subject dull than to give students a textbook and talk at them. The lab is what turns disinterested science pupils into highly skilled science graduates: experiments and practical work are vital, and at the very core of the scientific method. Yet not enough of either is done in our schools.

At Bellerbys College, Cambridge, we’ve tried a different approach. There’s no neglected English Literature course or understaffed history department: our specialty is STEM subjects, and all of our resources are directed that way. Our courses aim for depth: rather than try to give students a broad overview of everything, we have enrichment in areas such as medicine, robots, and several other STEM subjects that many students wouldn’t get a chance to explore until university–when in most cases, it’s too late.

(Next page: Creating a “positivity of learning environment”)

Create a positive learning environment

When I joined, the positivity of the learning environment was one of the things that immediately struck me. Teachers generally aren’t accustomed to classes where all of the students are entirely engaged in the subject matter. Our students, however, wouldn’t be there unless they were interested in STEM subjects. How did the school foster this environment? It’s simple: the learn-by-doing philosophy is inculcated into pupils early on, and it goes far beyond the odd lab-based practical.

In one instance, we invited a professor from neighboring Anglia Ruskin University to bring a spectroscope to the classroom. The students were asked to analyze the properties CSI-style and present their findings before an impromptu “court”: it was hands-on, it piqued their interest, and it showed how the scientific method was applicable to all sorts of settings. It’s no surprise that students respond to this far more than day after day of “turn to page 56.”

Show the history of science

Outside of practical tasks, it’s important that schools get a sense of the rich history of science. It’s always a good idea to take students to visit some of the great historical scientific achievements first hand. As we’re based in Cambridge – where individuals like Stephen Hawking have reshaped how we think about the world – we’ve been able to take our students to see Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia at the Cambridge University library. But wherever a school is based, there will be chances to go and see some fascinating scientific discoveries at work, or signs of previous technological accomplishments.

Seeing what great scientists have achieved is inspiring for students, and crucially, it helps cultivate a sense that the sciences are accessible. Many students are put off because STEM subjects are seen as complex and overwhelming, and it doesn’t help that they’re taught in complex, overwhelming ways. Unfocused, paint-by-numbers learning is actively discouraging the scholars of tomorrow: it does just enough to convince a student that they can’t understand the topic, and nowhere near enough to spark real interest. Progress in STEM university enrollment is always heartening, but the continued existence of skill shortages emphasizes how much more needs to be done at school level.

Nicholas Waite is Principal at Bellerbys College Cambridge. Bellerbys College Cambridge is an international school accepting students from all over the world including UK students. It is currently inviting applications for the Donna Bull Scholarship, to support a talented student that can demonstrate a commitment to their studies. The scholarship is in memory of Donna, Bellerbys College Cambridge A’Level Programme Manager, who tragically died in an accident on November 17th 2013.

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