Promoting STEM at the grassroots level is crucial for an innovative future
BY DR ADRIAN BURDEN Managing Director of Innovate Malvern CIC
The knowledge economy relies on thinking creatively, developing new technology, protecting intellectual property, and then executing on an idea to deliver a valued product or service. Training students to be able to contribute within this landscape during their future careers demands a concerted effort during their formative years. This encouragement should not just be at school, but also in the community in which they live as they grow up.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are important to promote because they lead to a structured understanding of our world and enable us to push the frontiers of discovery and invention. As a discipline, these subjects provide a grounding in critical thinking, problem solving, logic, and evidence-based understanding. These skills are important in many walks of life, but significantly they can lead to economic benefit that in turn will help to fund future well being of our society.
Teaching STEM subjects properly is a specialised activity that requires an excellent understanding of the area, an appreciation of the fast pace of change, and the ability to enthuse students whilst dispelling the myth that science and mathematics are dry and difficult. Moreover, these subjects can be relatively expensive for schools and colleges because of the need for laboratory space and equipment.
It is for this reason that the promotion of STEM should not be the sole responsibility of schools. By their very nature, these subjects relate to the world around us; and with some imagination this fact can be used to brighten-up the subjects and make them relevant. And it is up to local organisations that make use of STEM subjects in their day-to-day work to engage with students and demonstrate how. As a result, more students, and in particular girls, may be informed and inspired to further study STEM subjects and eventually work in a field that utilises them.
Ideally, the approach needs to be integrated and coordinated at the grassroots level. Local scientists and engineers should visit schools to give enlightening talks about their career path and their work, local companies should host students on work experience placements within their facilities, local communities should stage hands-on events and exhibitions in their libraries or town halls, and schools should embrace the opportunities whilst building on them further with lunchtime and/or after-school STEM clubs. Another aspect that is often missed is that parents and guardians themselves may have no interest in, or indeed have a fear of, STEM subjects. Promotion of STEM should engage them too; showing the range of exciting career prospects that their children could pursue.
The aim is not to convert every student to become a scientist or engineer! Rather the goal should be to ensure that every student understands the real-world relevance of STEM subjects and is given the opportunity to see if any aspect resonates with their own area of interest. And to show how these subjects complement other disciplines like modern languages, art and design, history, geography and business studies. Remember, the knowledge-based economy needs people who can translate technical documents, design the function and appearance of new products, learn from history, understand different cultures and demographics, and of course build a robust business case.
In the rural town of Great Malvern in the UK, efforts have been made to promote STEM at the grassroots level in some of the ways described. Admittedly the town has a heritage of science and technology because of the location of what was a UK government’s defence research organisation. But equally, the size of this activity has declined over the years and the town has become an appealing location to retire. These trends are not conducive to inspiring a younger generation about STEM subjects and such an ambition needed some intervention.
The annual Malvern Festival of Innovation has grown over the last seven or so years to include a schools’ day, a family day and a series of business-focused days. The result is that local businesses and organisations participate in the events with exhibits and workshops which in turn informs students and their parents about business activities in the region. The event draws world class speakers from around the UK to enthuse and inspire. Off the back of the Festival, monthly Raspberry Pi computer workshops started an after-school club and an evening session. Many primary schools in the town have also embraced regular Code Clubs and STEM clubs, supported by local STEM Ambassador volunteers who work in the locality. Building on the Festival, the town now holds the annual Malvern Science in the Park which is an alfresco event with larger scale hands-on experiments, trails and demonstrations. Local businesses have also worked with local schools to encourage computer science and cyber security; the CADS (Cyber Apprenticeship Development Scheme) being an excellent example. There have also been science events at the local library and nearby in the city of Worcester. And learned societies like the Royal Microscopical Society have also engaged with local primary schools, for example with the loan of their microscope activity kits.
Anyone wishing to champion STEM in their own community will find that there are plenty of resources and initiatives to help. Firstly, engage with the regional STEM Learning Hub who will have contacts to science teachers at the local schools and a pool of STEM Ambassadors keen to help out. Then see what events and grant funding support organisations like the British Science Association and The Royal Society have on offer for STEM activities in schools and local communities. Engage with some of the regional groups of national societies like the Institute of Physics, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Royal Society of Chemistry or the Royal Society of Biology. They may be receptive to helping to organise or participate in local events. Finally, investigate the myriad of online resources such as those provided by The Raspberry Pi Foundation, EngineeringUK, STEMettes, etc.
Inspiring just a handful of young students in each community to study STEM subjects that would otherwise not have done so is worthwhile. After all, they may become the next generation of innovators that contribute to our knowledge-based economy.
If you would like to contact Dr Adrian Burden:
Address: Wyche Innovation Centre, Walwyn Road, Malvern WR13 6PL, UK
Tel: 01684 252 404
Or let him know your thoughts below.
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