Involving teachers in STEM

Materials World magazine
3 Sep 2014

Juliet Upton of The Royal Society tells Simon Frost why science and maths teachers should be engaged within the STEM community.

The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that one million new STEM professionals will be required in the UK by 2020. With 42% of employers reporting difficulties recruiting STEM-proficient staff, is a change in our education system required to maintain STEM industries? The Royal Society thinks so, and has recently put forward its Vision for Science and Mathematics Education report, with clear aims to improve education standards and ensure that all students study science and mathematics, alongside arts and humanities as part of a baccalaureate up to age 18. A committee of scientists, mathematicians, headteachers, education policy specialists and a former Secretary of State for Education compiled the report. Juliet Upton, Project Leader for the Vision report during its creation, explains how this could affect STEM careers.

Tell us a bit about the background to the Vision report.

The UK is salient when it comes to science and innovation, but at the moment a lot of people are retiring or leaving the industry, and those coming out of the education system are not filling the gaps. Maths and science education is compulsory in Britain up to age 16, but we are an outlier in this respect. Most education systems essentially force people to study maths and science up to 18, within a baccalaureate system. We’re advocating significant changes in our education system and policy changes to support it, which won’t happen overnight.

How does this affect STEM and teaching professions?

A key message of this report is a call to the STEM community, and professional development is at the heart of this. If you think about it, when you choose to become a science or maths teacher, you’ve probably got a science or maths degree and you’ve made a choice that you’re not going into academic research or industry, but becoming a teacher – and thank goodness people do that.

But we think that what tends to happen at that point is you leave your scientific and mathematical community behind, and join the teaching fraternity instead. That seems wrong to us because, fundamentally, you are a scientist or mathematician, but at a very early point in your career you’re being cut off from your STEM community. This is not helpful, because that’s when you need to engage – to keep current in your subject specialism. Your professional world is not just that of teaching but also of cutting-edge science and technology. One thing we suggest is that the STEM professional bodies include teachers in their membership. The professional bodies have not all reached out to the teaching community but we think that someone teaching physics, for example, should be a member of the Institute of Physics. How, if you effectively leave science to teach for 30–40 years, do you stay up-todate? If you’re not a member of IOM3, how do you keep up with materials science?

How should teaching fit into a STEM career?
The world of work has changed. Fifty years ago, if you were going down the mines, that was your life. Now people often have a portfolio career – they start off on one track then divert and go somewhere else. Why isn’t that so for teachers? If you come out of university with a great chemistry degree and decide you’d like to go into academic research, but you’d also quite like to teach in schools, why isn’t that possible? Why couldn’t you have a part-time academic career, a part-time teaching career and a part-time industrial career? It’s complex, clearly, to make it work, but we feel that permeability between sectors needs to start happening. We want teachers to really understand the subjects that they teach and the developments in those subject areas, so that industry can recognise people coming out of the education system who are truly innovative and who actually understand what it is to be a physicist, for example. For this to happen, teachers need to be a part of the STEM community.


  • Uptake in STEM A-Levels has increased in the last 10 years, but is it enough? Physics in particular is struggling to attract students, with a notable lack of female applicants. From 49% of co-educational maintained schools in England, not a single female leaver went on to take A-Level Physics in 2011. In 2010, at least 500 English state schools did not employ a specialist physics teacher.

The recommendations from the Vision report are now being developed with partners from the STEM professional community, led by the Royal Society’s Education Committee Chair, Professor Dame Julia Higgins FRS FREng. The report can be downloaded here.

What are your views on the standard of emerging STEM professionals? Tweet us @materialsworld