From education to employment

How to improve the quality AND quantity of STEM students

Dr Coorous Mohtadi, Senior Academic Technical Specialist, MathWorks
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This year, STEM professionals were looking forward to the news of an increase in the number of A-Level students who had succeeded in passing their exams in STEM subjects. However, the uptake of these subjects continued to disappoint. Worryingly, the proportion of A* and A grades awarded to 18-year-olds in England this year in chemistry fell from 35.3 per cent to 33.3 per cent and from 32.3 per cent to 30.7 per cent in physics.

These figures indicate that much work has to be done to increase the number of students studying STEM subjects at university. Despite the introduction of various STEM education initiatives, we are still not seeing a quick enough improvement.

Inspiring young people to pursue STEM subjects beyond compulsory education and into industry is key to addressing the skills gap the UK is currently facing. Changes in society are driving up demand for experts in STEM subjects, and unless we meet this demand we are at risk of restricting economic growth. Consequently, it is important that we find new and interactive ways to engage students in these subjects.

So, if current A-Level teaching methods aren’t having the desired impact, what techniques can be used instead to encourage more young people to study STEM subjects and eventually move into a STEM career?

MathWorks has found project-based learning to be a highly successful way to encourage students to pursue a career in STEM, reinforced by some recent MathWorks research that found 87% of teachers of science, maths and technology subjects agree that STEM should be taught with more practical examples to bring the subject to life for students. But why is it proving so effective?

Firstly, project-based learning allows educators to bring their course material closer to real life and enables young children to get hands-on so they can see that computing, maths and physics are very creative as well as technical. Capturing their imagination at a young age can help ensure that students maintain their interest in engineering science into higher education. Project-based learning allows students to see, hear and touch what would otherwise be completely abstract and gives them a better idea of what a career in STEM might entail on a day-to-day basis.

Currently, the engineering industry is short of 69,000 skilled employees a year, according to EngineeringUK. Therefore, it is vital we address the skills gap to maintain economic growth in the UK. However, of those students that do boast qualifications in these sectors, many are not prepared with appropriate, relevant skills for the workplace. Project-based learning helps students to meet industry needs for engineers with practical skills and experience. For example, by incorporating industry-standard software such as MATLAB and Simulink, instructors not only keep students motivated but also prepare them for a wide range of careers.

One way to enable this hands-on learning in a classroom environment is through the incorporation of low-cost hardware devices such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi into the curriculum. These devices can help make classroom tuition more engaging as students are able to bring theory to life in exciting and interactive ways. By connecting the hardware to support packages it becomes more accessible and children are quickly able to achieve visible results. When the students have the ability to see what can be achieved, and they participate in creating technology, they become more engaged in STEM subjects while also developing transferrable skills such as team-work, problem-solving and critical thinking.

While project-based learning might seem like a straightforward solution, barriers such as funding and the time it takes to update the curriculum mean that the government requires support from businesses to realise their goals. Therefore, industry has an increasingly key role to play in providing extracurricular support for education. Releasing senior employees to contribute to activities such as code clubs is a simple yet powerful way some companies are enabling organic transfer of skills. As well as supporting extracurricular activities, is it vital that businesses work alongside teachers in order to help develop relevant programmes.

If companies continue to support and engage education, they will become indispensable, trusted partners for government and civil society. Businesses will prove their value to education by delivering usable knowledge and skills at every stage of education from early childhood through the attainment of a career in STEM.

Dr Coorous Mohtadi, Senior Academic Technical Specialist, MathWorks

About MathWorks: The leading developer of mathematical computing software for engineers and scientists. The company supports programs that inspire learning and advance education in engineering, science, and mathematics. Their strong commitment to education comes from believing in the power of learning and the ability of engineering, science, and mathematics to find innovative solutions to real-world problems.

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