An ongoing survey of over 2,000 engineers in Ireland, being conducted by Team Horizon, has established that a greater emphasis on STEM in primary and secondary education was the most important initiative the Government could undertake.
The Irish Government have recognised the need for further investment in education, training and development. I welcome initiatives such as Action Plan for Jobs, Springboard, the new Apprenticeship Council and the establishment of the STEM Education Review Group amongst others. We must also applaud the initiatives of others such as Engineers Ireland and CoderDojo for their work in raising awareness and interest in STEM careers.
But, despite all this good work, there is still not enough attention on STEM as a key focus.
Action Plan for Jobs 2016 has 295 actions outlined, all welcome and needed but it has only 1 action that specifically refers to STEM
The Table of Actions in Action Plan for jobs has a dedicated section to ICT skills but there is no mention of engineering in any of the 264 actions.
The STEM Education Review Group, established by Minster Sherlock has 2 employer reps – both from ICT. No engineering or science employers are represented.
The SFI discovery programme is a welcome initiative but its focus is on R&D discovery with little or no focus on manufacturing or engineering excellence as an important competitive tool.
Springboard conversion courses have an important role to play but a search on Springboard engineering courses results in only 3 being listed, whereas ICT has 33 and construction 15.
A NEW APPROACH
Not alone do we need to think outside of the box………..we need to understand there is no box.
Albert Einstein said “Education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think”. Our education system forces students to take a rote learning approach and not a creative one. We need to encourage problem solving capability, teamwork and creativity, not suppress them. This approach can have a far more positive impact on students’ approach and perception of STEM subjects and careers.
Take the case of the Cambridge, UK primary school that put engineering on the curriculum for 7-year olds. “We realised engineering was right up there,” said Head teacher Nigel Helliwell. “The whole point [of the subject] is that you are not telling the children how to solve a problem. That’s what makes it different from other subjects. You tell them what you want to achieve and they come up with the ideas. We want to spur children to do engineering. But, even if they don’t go on to be engineers, being creative and working in teams is highly relevant for many jobs.”
Or the Canadian University where engineering students are given real job experience by working with clients in all four years of their undergraduate course. “Students in all years of the four-year program work with clients on a variety of projects. Nicholas Krougliof, the school’s associate dean, said the curriculum teaches students how to be professional engineers by thrusting them into working life long before they’ve graduated.”Communication, team work, professionalism, ethics and equity … We have to be able to instil these attributes in our students,” he said. “to give them really a competitive edge when they’re entering the workforce.”
Or the CoSTEM initiative in the US where Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), comprised of 13 agencies—including all of the mission-science agencies and the Department of Education—are facilitating a cohesive national strategy, with new and repurposed funds, to increase the impact of federal investments in five areas: 1.) improving STEM instruction in preschool through 12th grade; 2.) increasing and sustaining public and youth engagement with STEM; 3.) improving the STEM experience for undergraduate students; 4.) better serving groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields; and 5.) designing graduate education for tomorrow’s STEM workforce
WOMEN IN ENGINEERING
We also need a new approach to equality in STEM careers and for women in engineering in particular. We need to break the stereotyping associated with engineering and other STEM careers. A recent Science Foundation Ireland survey found that 62% of Irish students said that ‘fitting in’ was the biggest factor influencing their study choices, compared to career prospects (56%) and course requirements (28%). And a recent Engineering UK report highlights that women are being put off roles in the profession by stereotypes portraying it as a “job for the boys”. In a review of online imagery relating to the profession, only one in four images referring to engineering on 70 websites used by young people featured women. The head of diversity at the Royal Academy of Engineering has stated that “Schools need to challenge these stereotypes and we need better careers advice for young people.”
Those charged with getting more girls into engineering say we need to consider more disruptive changes: make science compulsory until 18 or provide financial incentives for those who study engineering at undergraduate level. In Ireland, STEM third level students are only 28% female and 72% male.
Society, especially Western Society, need to understand that it is not innate that women are less attracted to engineering. How can this be when in Iran, 70% of engineering students are women, in Saudi Arabia 45% of computer scientists are female and in Malaysia this number is 50%.
Perhaps this extract from a public speech on Equality for Women by a 5th year student in Sacred Heart School, Westport highlights the challenges we have to face up to as a society:
Like me, many of you here today have been discriminated against in Ireland’s education system. I attend an all-girls school where the subject choices that are on offer to me are limited and I for one do not have the opportunity to choose subjects such as metalwork and tech drawing to name but a few. Instead I have the option of doing home economics. I am taught how to look after a house and family but not taught something that may give me an equal career path later in life, such as engineering
AN INVESTMENT IN STEM IS AN INVESTMENT IN OUR FUTURE
We must capture the imagination of students, teachers, government and other decision makers to the potential of STEM and its positive impact on society. An article by Goldy Kamali, published by The Huffington Post sums up the STEM challenge and opportunity succinctly:
“People employed in STEM fields are making technological breakthroughs that directly impact our lives: engineers are improving our infrastructure, developing safer bridges and roads across the country; scientists are making advances in health care that bring us closer to eradicating disease; and innovators are consistently changing the way we think about communication. They are the people who move our country forward and the minds who enable us [the U.S.] to remain one of the most progressive nations in the world.
There is not a lack of jobs in the aforementioned industries, but rather a lack of qualified individuals to fill the available positions…….An investment needs to be made in STEM, starting from a young age, and the organizations making these investments need to be recognized.”