There is a big shortage in STEM skills around the country so it was great to hear James Bennett from STEM Ambassador Hub South East of England (based at Canterbury Christ Church University) come to tell us what he and others are doing to help.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and STEM Ambassadors are a group of enthusiastic volunteers from a wide range of STEM-related backgrounds that help inspire others to think about STEM and STEM-related careers.
James got involved with the STEM Ambassador Programme because he wanted to encourage young people into STEM careers. Despite a background in business and marketing, James knew his skills could be used to get youngsters and the community engaged with STEM. He is a graduate of Christ Church himself and has been the STEM Hub Administrator based at Canterbury Christ Church University since 2015. (Rotarians and schools involved with our Rotary Club's Innovation Competition may have noticed James helping us behind the scenes.)
With advances in technology, STEM subjects are becoming increasingly important. The advent of the internet, smart phones and social media means that STEM now plays a 24/7 role in most people's lives, with many of them not even being aware of its importance and influence.
The number of people in engineering in Kent and Medway has risen over the past few years - interestingly, the STEM Ambassadors have been active in the area over the same period, so perhaps they are linked.
Just to set some background, James told us that among year 6 students (i.e. schoolchildren aged around 10 years), the interest in STEM was even between boys and girls. However, by year 11 (i.e. 16-year-olds) the number had plummeted - by almost half for girls and by a quarter for boys. Thus, there is a need to maintain enthusiasm and aspirations by working with youngsters while they are still at school.
To address this issue, James' group (the STEM hub based at Christ Church) helps teachers give young people different experiences. There are many ways in which they do this. For instance, STEM learning may encourage representatives of different industries to give their time at careers fairs or by volunteering for different activities. Or they may run interactive workshops that allow children to get involved with STEM, gain confidence and perhaps consider a STEM career. Stereotypes can be challenged by getting 'real' individuals from the workplace - such as female engineers - to be involved. The STEM team also help address skills and knowledge that teachers may lack about STEM careers: the curriculum is ever changing so teachers need to know what is relevant in different STEM-related industries. James's team also want people to be aware that going to University is not the only route into a STEM career. University fees are high and might be off-putting to some, but there are often other career pathways open to them. James and his colleagues want to encourage social mobility in Kent & Medway.
Unfortunately, funding cuts have meant that schools have less money to invest in careers advice, so they are increasingly reliant on the services of free assistance from STEM Ambassadors and other volunteers.
Our Club, particularly through its vocational services committee, is active in encouraging youngsters to engage with STEM - not only through our Innovation Competition, but also through voluntary activities such as carrying out mock interviews at local schools to prepare youngsters for the workplace. (See here for one of our articles).
Several of our members are currently STEM Ambassadors. For the last two years James has been working with Rotarians Brian Dobinson and Mary McGeary and others on the mock interviews. The key driver behind this is the set of the Gatsby Career Benchmarks, the 5th of which aims to encourage encounters with employers and employees. Without this it can be hard for youngsters to find out about different career possibilities - especially if they are limited to only finding out things from family members. Statistics show that increasing the number of such encounters with adults from different career backgrounds has a positive impact on getting jobs.
James told us how, as for so many others, he was unaware of the range of different careers and fields when he was at school. For instance, while people may be aware of engineering, they might not be aware of types of engineering - civil, mechanical, structural, electrical, chemical and so on. Through popular events James and his colleagues are able to inform youngsters about such diversity.
Each year, for example, they hold a 'Big Bang' event at the Discovery Park in Sandwich in which around 1,000 youngsters and their teachers come along to interact with STEM Ambassadors and others. He showed us a video in which youngsters can be seen looking down microscopes and blowing bubbles, all to get them interested in STEM. Last year over 2,500 STEM events were held in the South East.
James told us how different groups benefit from their various activities:
- Ambassadors - get a chance to 'give back', and often events like Big Bang can help with recruitment into their sector. There are currently around 4,500 STEM Ambassadors in the South East and around 50,000 nationally.
- Schools - everything is free (funding into STEM Learning comes from the Government and organisations such as the Wellcome Trust). James' group works with all 20 local secondary schools and has a 100% success rate of engaging with them.
- Students - they get to learn about STEM and STEM careers. Through special workshops youngsters might find out about how different sectors work and gain some hands-on experience. For instance, they might consider how to make a new medicinal drug - what are the steps, how long might it take? They may also get a chance to work with real scientists in real industry settings.
To find out more about STEM learning and how to become a STEM Ambassador or get involved with STEM click here.
To find out more about Big Bang Fairs, click here.
To watch a video about Big Bang, click here and scroll down to the video.
Picture: James talks to our members about the STEM Ambassador Programme. Picture credit: Rotary Club of Canterbury.