STEMming the Tide- Why STEM subjects need to be promoted in schools.

At the start of my teaching career, there was an enormous desire from students of both sexes to be involved in STEM subjects. It was a time of great scientific discovery and development, and grand projects such as the quest to put a man on the moon inspired many a youth towards a career in the Sciences.

The inspiration gained from the Space Race led to a wealth of talent that brought the United Kingdom into its role as a leader in a range of technologies. Our economy flourished with the bounty gleaned from our innovations, and our society moved steadily away from a manufacturing base to one able to exploit the creative minds that sought to thrust technology forward.

It was a time of great development in the fields of Biology and Medicine too, with Watson, Crick and Franklin revealing the secrets of DNA, and Christiaan Barnard’s pioneering work in heart transplant.

Educationists did not have to ‘sell’ STEM subjects- they sold themselves, to a generation of enthusiasts that could not get enough of their science fix. So where, we must ask, has it all gone wrong? Why are STEM subjects now such a hard sell, and how can we recover the desire to learn these subjects?

The beginning of the problem was the very success of STEM subjects in schools. For many years, there was no need to promote them, and so teachers of these subjects sat back and allowed others to thrust their competing subjects in the spotlight. We sat on our laurels knowing that there would always be a need for scientists, there would always be jobs available, and that with a scientific role in the community would come great respect.

Society began to evolve and as it did so, the focus in education changed. From leaving the less able to fend for themselves, teachers began to offer more inclusive syllabuses that allowed every child the chance to develop their talents. There was less focus on promoting the most able through Grammar Schools, and many were swept away to be replaced by Comprehensive Schools that, whilst offering a high standard of education, were more inclined to offer a broader range of qualifications, giving a wider choice that began to erode the dominance of STEM.

Into this mix came the new GCSE qualifications. Some subjects changed their focus radically, from a knowledge based syllabus to a skills based one, and the need to ‘know stuff’ became less important. This offered the first real challenge to STEM, where the development of skills had always been important, and would continue to be so, but the huge knowledge base of STEM subjects had to remain intact. It was inevitable that with the flexibility of other subjects, STEM would gradually come to be perceived as ‘hard’ and their difficulty would offer a ready excuse to those who failed.

STEM subject leaders would rightly be proud that these subjects maintained their academic rigour, and that to succeed in them was still the mark of an excellent student, with a range of metal skills and agility . The problem, however, with allowing the concept of ‘difficulty’ to flourish is that human nature is often to seek the easy path, and potentially good STEM students chose instead to focus on less taxing courses of study.

In addition to this, teachers of STEM subjects have been disadvantaged in relation to their colleagues. Core subjects have been exposed to much greater scrutiny than others, and STEM teachers have consequently had to meet school policies in a way that non-core subjects could often avoid. Students seldom leave school without having completed public examinations in STEM subjects, while in many other non-core subjects only a relatively small proportion of the student body will even study them to GCSE. Teachers of STEM subjects are expected to differentiate to give access to every student in the school, whilst other subject areas may have to deal with a much narrower range of ability, and students who are more motivated having chosen that particular area of study. In addition, in most schools science subjects have been grouped together, with usually a maximum of two TLR posts available. Subjects such as humanities offer a much greater opportunity for career advancement, and in some schools, every teacher in the humanities department is able to achieve a TLR.

So- to sum up so far- a STEM subject teacher is likely to struggle to keep up with the workload required in these subjects because of the close scrutiny they are under and the range of ability of students they teach, and will have a poorer outlook with regards to promotion prospects. Hardly surprising then that teaching STEM subjects is not seen to be an attractive option for those leaving University with good STEM degrees. Whilst many graduates may complete their PGCE to ‘keep their options open’ and will even teach for a few years, the low pay, poor prospects and lack of work/life balance will often have them scurrying into jobs elsewhere where their skills and knowledge are better appreciated and rewarded.

Without good, enthusiastic and talented role models to teach in schools, we have lost one of the most important ways of selling our subjects. That is not to say there are not good STEM teachers taking up the challenge in schools- there are- but we all know that their numbers are becoming fewer each year, and many schools are struggling massively to employ enough high calibre STEM subject teachers.

On top of these problems, there is also the gender divide, with relatively few girls/women taking on STEM subjects. Perhaps girls may lean more naturally towards the aesthetic, but there is certainly a problem with the culture in many schools that fails to address the possibilities that STEM can offer. The biggest problem is that schools have a tendency to approach the problem with a blunt instrument approach, where more subtlety is needed. Having identified that girls do not seem to want to take on STEM, the approach is to push STEM at all costs. What is required is an immersive environment in which the range of possibilities is opened up to all students. It is a generalization, but one which can be evidenced, that many students know little about the range of opportunities available to them, and when it comes to career choices fall back on the known i.e. the jobs that their parents or close family have experience of. Few are willing to step outside the family comfort zone and attempt to take on a different and potentially more challenging career. How do we combat this? In every school, we need to display a wide range of job opportunities, with information about qualifications required, estimated earnings, prospects of promotion, and potential routes to success. As a student walks along the corridors in their school, they should be absorbing the knowledge that there is more out there for them, that the best-remunerated jobs are those that require specialist skills and knowledge, and that there are many ways to achieve success. We should be ‘programming’ them so that they are open to new challenges, so that an alternative choice (e.g female car mechanic, male nurse) is seen as both acceptable and ordinary. We must take away the stigma and the potential ridicule that challenging traditional gender rules can lead to.

We must also be more open to encouraging apprenticeships, both from an economic point of view, so that those who need to ‘earn to learn’ are willing to do so, and from an academic viewpoint, valuing the balance between skills and knowledge. We must also be more willing to allow our students out into STEM industries to find inspiration, and invite STEM professionals into schools to keep the momentum going.

We must avoid the urge to patronize girls who express an interest in STEM. It has become a cliché in STEM competitions to ‘encourage’ the girls to ‘beat the boys at their own game’. This is counterproductive on so many levels- the assumption that girls don’t know that they can win, the suggestion that STEM is really a male game, and that girls are being allowed to cross the gender divide as a privilege. I despair every time some fledgling feminist fails to see that their ‘motivational speech’ is actually putting girls off from participating to their fullest. We must avoid loading our personal agendas onto them and allow them to compete for the joy of competition- win or lose should not matter.

In the grand scheme of things, the government must also play its part. Whilst teaching unions will surely resist, it is time to pay STEM teachers for their skills, and at a rate that competes with industry that seeks to poach the most able and take our teaching role models out of the classroom.

Finally, we need to highlight where technology exists in schools, and how STEM subjects are at the core of our modern life. We must take the opportunity to demonstrate what STEM has achieved, and how everything our students hold dear is based on the very subjects that they seem to reject. We need to celebrate STEM with the fervor that other subjects celebrate theirs- with competitions, awards, STEM colours, STEM student ambassadors, and every creative approach to STEM we can think of. Only when we can see strong growth from STEM will our objective be achieved…..