It’s British Science Week and writing about STEM subjects has taken me down memory lane. I was starting the sixth form when I realised that engineering could be the career for me. Encouraged by my maths teacher, I took part in a STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) scheme run by the Engineering Development Trust (EDT).
The Engineering Education Scheme (EES) encourages Year 12 students to understand the importance of science and engineering to industry. It convinced me. Fast forward 11 years – I’m a civil engineer who has spent the last five years working on exciting transportation projects.
STEM is a term first coined by the National Science Foundation that focuses on one or more of the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM Learning is the UK’s largest education and career support provider in these subjects and is committed to world-leading STEM education for all our young people. Every year two million UK pupils and students benefit from professional learning programmes, including:
- delivering teacher continuing professional development in STEM subjects (this is for both primary and secondary teachers)
- thousands of free resources available on the website to support teaching (can help plan and deliver lessons for a range of ages)
- STEM Ambassador Programme for schools and colleges
- resource packages based on popular children’s books provide a great context for learning science, with books organised into age groups.
I have been a STEM Ambassador since I graduated from university in 2016. Essentially, this means I’m one of over 30,000 volunteers across the UK who support young people’s learning, raise their aspirations and introduce them to various STEM careers. We talk to students at their schools (or online since the pandemic) and help them understand the real-world applications of their learning.
Each STEM Ambassador’s contribution is unique. I have given several talks to schools and colleges about my career and how I got into engineering, I’ve run activities based on how to plan a rail network in England, and I’ve been a judge at science fairs.
STEM subjects are gaining popularity, but…
Every day the science and technology industries are looking to find innovative solutions to world challenges. And each generation of scientists, engineers and technicians will play their part. Through my work with STEM, I am heartened (and relieved!) to see a growing increase in the number of young people interested in developing a career within a STEM profession.
While attending an event as a STEM ambassador in January 2020, I was starkly reminded that we still have some basic hurdles to overcome to attract capable young people to science-based professions. When asked by a young delegate to explain what engineering is, I struggled to find the words! How is that possible when engineering is what I do as a job? Technically minded young people need to articulate their understanding of technology and science, and there is no better way of doing this than through books!
Our natural curiosity about the world around us is most intense when we are very young, which is the best time to embed an interest in STEM subjects. A King’s College London report substantiates this: “Most young people’s science aspirations and views of science are formed during the primary years and solidified by the age of 14.”
I support STEM learning starting at the primary school level but, to capitalise on this early investment, children need sufficient literacy skills to understand the scientific concepts being introduced. A cross-curricular approach is needed.
STEM literacy is a lifelong pursuit
STEM disciplines require critical thinking, interpretation of technical text, content-specific vocabulary and the ability to communicate this well. I certainly spend a lot of my working time reading, interpreting, and producing text.
There is, in fact, a term ‘STEM literacy’ that is often defined as: “the knowledge and understanding of scientific and mathematical concepts and the process required for personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity for all students”.
The STEM Learning website has many teaching resources for improving reading and literacy for STEM subjects at all Key Stages. These include a series called ‘Literacy in…’ that looks at why talking about mathematics and science is essential for learning and outlines strategies for developing students’ reading and writing skills and mathematical/scientific vocabulary.
STEM Learning also recognises the increasing demands for literacy ability in STEM subjects examinations. It has developed a course that ensures students have the literacy skills to be successful, independent learners. Integrating STEM and literacy gives young people the confidence to explore the science, technology and maths topics that interest them. As well as cultivating a love of books, this is equipping them to progress in STEM-related careers if that is the path they choose.
During my A-levels, I remember writing my university application personal statement and proudly listing the engineering books I had read: Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing by Henry Petrosci and JE Gordon’s Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. For undergraduates, too, textbooks are vital to learning new theories. And afterwards, when continuing professional development by undertaking further study or working towards becoming Chartered (as I am currently), we once again turn to books.
To finish on a personal note… I have loved reading since I was little. I am currently reading the debut novel of Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain, that was awarded the 2020 Booker prize. I even miss my daily commute during the lockdown as it is a chance to get some reading in!
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