The science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries are booming. In the U.S. the STEM industries account for more than half of the sustained economic expansion, while in the U.K., the tech industry grew 32 percent faster than any other industry.
In a time when young people face an increasingly hostile and competitive job market, doesn’t it make sense to teach them the skills for the industries that have an excess of job opportunities? Unfortunately, science education is struggling to keep up with the fast developments happening in the world, as Kristiina Kumpulainen, professor of pedagogy at the University of Helsinki, explains, “Society and the demands of the workforce are changing at a rapid rate, as is our perception of what to teach children and what they need to know to survive.”
Education needs to keep up with industry demands in order for there to be a seamless cohesion between a child’s education and their adult life. Kumpulainen goes onto say, “the world of children and young people outside of schools has changed, and so the school environment, teaching methods and the content aren’t relatable or inspiring to them any longer, which creates motivational problems.”
The most effective way of getting pupils excited about what they’re learning is to link it to real-life situations and opportunities. The challenge of engagement affects the whole of education, and STEM subjects in particular are often perceived as difficult, boring or simply not for them. Schools operate separately from the rest of the world, so of course it is difficult for young people to understand and see how what they’re learning links to real life, which in turn makes it challenging to be motivated and passionate.
A fundamental issue that needs to be addressed is young people’s perceptions of STEM subjects. The disinterest in science and technology fields starts very young; all you have to do is look at the media children consume. Science-related characters are often portrayed as geeky or nerdy, and are almost always male. Instantly this implies that science is not a subject for girls, and children who are interested in science don’t necessarily see it as a positive trait. We are limiting our young people by not showing them what they could be and encouraging them to follow any passions they may have.
There are ways to counter this perception though. One example is Detective Dot, a children’s app which teaches coding through storytelling. Children become members of the CIA (Children’s Intelligence Agency) and help Dot to solve problems through learning and then applying coding and STEM skills. Creator of Detective Dot, Sophie Deen, wanted to provide STEM materials that promote diversity and that are gender neutral – encouraging every child to explore a range of industries, skills and interests that aren’t limited by gender.
Schools also need to counter these negative stereotypes by helping to introduce a love for science early on. Science for Tots, a project being trialled in Finnish preschools by HundrED, focuses on teaching science in a holistically rich way through exploration and play. The goal of the experiment is to teach children STEM skills through discovery, and to create positive feelings of achievement and wonder at a young age, in the hopes that this will build a long-lasting love for science and give the foundation skills they will need going forward.
Another effective means of inspiring young people in STEM is to link the subject to industries, allowing students to see the wealth of opportunities in the sector. “Education is everyone’s responsibility,” says Kerrine Bryan, STEM ambassador and founder of Butterfly Books. “We should be making sure that students know how subjects relate to the industry. What they are learning at school relates to real-life things, and knowing that helps them to make important decisions, such as what further education subjects they want to study or what skills they want to go into.”
Therefore, we need industries to partner with schools. Professionals can offer work experience, mentor or even provide talks on what they’re currently working on. By adopting this practice, students will have a clearer idea of what working in STEM industries involves, which will revitalize science as a subject and give the lessons meaning.
Collaboration in all walks of life is a great way to innovate and develop ideas and should therefore become a natural way for science teachers to work together in order to improve their practices. For example projects like Scientix, which provides an online portal for science teachers across Europe, helps teachers to collaborate and learn from each other’s practices. The online tool also encourages linking science materials to real-life practices. Industry professionals upload information on their current work practices and developments to the platform, so that teachers can be informed on the latest contemporary advances in their chosen field. Teachers can then invigorate their work by incorporating the contemporary information into their classes.
If we are going to make science classrooms exciting learning environments for today’s youth, science education needs to break out of schools, out of books and out of gender and racial constructs, moving away from both traditional practices and traditional perceptions of who science is for. Only then will the sciences catch up with the world that they are supposed to be educating for.