Nurturing young STEMs

Materials World magazine
3 Sep 2010

Why did you decide to follow a career in materials, minerals or mining? I expect that there are as many answers as there are readers of this column, but for many perhaps it was following in the footsteps of a parent or inspiration from a particular engineering feat. Whatever the reason, we are in the minority. In a 2008 survey for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, 60% of teachers said their pupils most aspired to be David Beckham, and 32% said their students modelled themselves on heiress Paris Hilton.

Unfortunately, while we will never be short of celebrities, the UK and worldwide economy requires expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) more than ever to provide solutions to critical issues such as low carbon energy, water supply, flood management and sustainable agriculture.

To address the deficit, the engineering profession has formed an alliance, Engineering the Future, to strengthen engagement with policy makers and Government. This has identified five priorities, one of which is ‘Sustaining and encouraging investment in the skills for the future’, or to put it another way ‘get them interested while they are young’.

Links between Higher Education and industry are already strong, and the IOM3 local society network is an integral part of this. But how do you inspire young people to take up a STEM related vocational qualification or degree?

The Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics Network (STEMnet) is a UK-wide charity promoting STEM awareness, especially among young people, and STEM Ambassadors is their flagship programme. It relies on a network of 18,000 or so volunteers who offer time and support to promote these subjects to primary and secondary school pupils. It is an invaluable and free resource for teachers, helping them deliver the Science and Mathematics curriculum in fresh and exciting ways.

The events, awards, competitions, and science and engineering clubs supported by STEMnet are impressive. One of the best I have been involved with is the Greenpower Challenge, co-sponsored by the Institute, which is a hands-on project to design, build and race an electric car.

The Challenge gives participants an insight into the real, tangible world of engineering – practical application of mathematics and physics, form and function, design and optimisation, project management, teamwork and problem solving. The scheme introduces students to all of these and more, providing invaluable skills for any young person whether or not they decide to pursue an engineering career.

I recently helped at the 2010 Scottish heats. The enthusiasm and creativity shown by all the participants and their teachers was truly enriching. Many of them will answer in years to come that this was the point at which they first thought about a career in engineering. I would encourage anyone who shares my enthusiasm for science, technology and engineering to get involved, and lets start sowing the seeds for the next generation of STEM graduates.

For details of how to become a STEM Ambassador, visit