The state of STEM – why we need to make a concerted effort to help everyone enjoy Science

You have to ask yourself this question. Is your vision for Britain a dusty museum to the past, or a powerhouse with a great future? Right now, maths may not be fashionable, but it may well turn out to be necessary. – Eric Schmidt, Google Chairman

My last post narrowly missed being one dedicated to the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). This one will have no such luck. A friend tweeted Eric’s comment to me a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t help but feel ashamed. Why should an American Software engineer be so aware of this ‘British problem’ that he is able to voice such an opinion on such a stage? It’s no secret that interest is waning and potential is being wasted in the UK  even for those who have a particular flair for the STEM subjects. The current shrinking STEM pipeline is a big problem – not even the boys do STEM. I think we (feminists) are totally missing a trick here.

Why does it matter? What makes STEM great and interesting?

As a Mathematics and Computer Science major, I’m slightly biased (vs. Biology, Medicine or Engineering) but I have a lot to show for why STEM is actually quite cool. Fun things like making Google Translate Beatbox or having a sweet dispensed everytime someone retweets you only scratch the surface. Being a geek shouldn’t automatically mean that you have no idea how to party (see ‘Party Mode’ towards the end of the video below) or enjoy yourself. Science can be sporty – think Goal Line technology and robots playing football. Science can also be scandalous – the Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison story is a fascinating one – recently covered by the Oatmeal in comic form.

Science at it’s best – the Berkeley Ridiculously Automated Dorm

It is often said that the Sciences should be held with high esteem. I agree, but also feel like we should push a little harder to help people (and especially the next generation) realise that the esteem is attainable. It’s important that we care enough to make science classrooms fun  and teach children to code at whatever age (see coders aged 6) . Our belief in STEM is being economically underpinned by recent spikes of interest in biotech, greentech and medical startups . We’re also still on the look out for a cure for cancer, are begging for STEM teachers and have been flying medical and healthcare professionals into our country for a while. I also believe that STEM has answers to big problems – think of those not currently in education, employment or training – what difference would a strong set of science skills make to their employability?

The great thing about having a STEM education is the fact that your skills are transferable, there are many jobs globally and there really is a future in science, or at least having an appreciation for scientific things. STEM skills are helping ex-convicts get back on their feet. Employers appreciate the connections that a ‘scientific brain’ can make. For your own sake you should really be aware, or able to parse  the good, the bad and the ugly of what STEM is making possible in the 21st century; ignorance is no longer bliss…being informed is the way forward.

Computers are extremely important in today’s world. They’ll play an even bigger role in tomorrow. We’re moving towards an #internetofthings  that will aim to help improve our lives more than computers have done thus far by helping our washing machine communicate with us, we’re now getting real-time help finding parking spaces and soon enough the TV experience will be completely overhauled.

It will be great to be a consumer but wisdom dictates that we should also really try to be producers.

Dr Andy Stanford-Clark, Master Inventor at IBM has dedicated a lot of time to using the ‘Internet of Things’ concept for Social Good.

How do we inspire the next generation of STEM producers?

I was recently sat in my car with a friend. Telling her about this post she said something that I’ve heard countless times before and really hate hearing: when she was younger she had loved Science and that her Secondary School science teacher had made her lose interest. I’ve heard this for all subjects normally taught at school (personally, I drifted away from History due to the great person we had teaching it) but I also believe that students now more than ever have the potential to let external influences outweigh the experiences they have at school. I think I’ve caught up on all the History I missed due to a love of the ‘Horrible Histories’ series and the availability of the History Channel.

Let’s have more scientific superstars like Brian Cox, Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Susan Greenfield. Let’s publicise the exciting side and take kids to the magnificent world of hackathons. Let’s teach them to build mobile apps and how to code. We should explain that Facebook isn’t just a service, but a combination of databases, JavaScript and AJAX . We should help to save historically relevant STEM places like Bletchley Park  and we should explain the Science behind the news: like how nuclear reactors work.

We should also show that scientists are normal people who wear Make-Up, play Football and eat biscuits too. We should have them on TV, on radio and going viral via YouTube and Twitter. We should have them tweet videos of crazy experiments and get ‘Celeb Endorsements’ on experiments. We should draw comics on crazy scientists and we have programmes like ‘School of Hard Sums‘ broadcast on main TV channels. We should get James May to talk more about the physics of cars and we should ask the Jackass Lads to try slightly more targeted pranks. And then we add women to the mix. Lots of women – think Big Bang Theory meets Mean Girls. We should ask the makers of Hustle, Oceans 14 and Leverage to be more scientifically accurate. And we should attempt to convert a Science (note, not sci-fi) novel or textbook into a film (Kickstarter project, anyone?). We should convince celebrities to take up STEM or at least try a few (thought) experiments.

Not just STEM in isolation

We should also work hard to draw the parallels with Science, Music and the Arts. Not just negative stuff on how artists can no longer make money selling records, but ways that the science of materials have made a decent looking Faraday ‘data blocker’ handbag possible and the fact that Design is SO important in product design, even for online platform. STEM can help many people work together in small chunks to transcribe or even translate literature and the Google Street View cameras are taking an up close view of artwork at several art galleries to the masses, for free.

In essence, these are the three things we should do:

  1. Young/youth events and activities around competitive coding. Sign those around you up to initiatives like Code Club. This is the new ‘learning Chinese’. Imagine a generation (of girls?) who see it as their God-given right to code, or the norm (for girls) to ‘do’ science. Imagine the impact that would have on future generations – think of the coded solutions to the world’s problems, the next set of revenue generation apps, or even the next big programming language being developed here, right under our noses.
  2. When you do see cool uses for Science, promote them…via your blog, in any press you can influence, and on Twitter. Technology is cool, and everyone should know about it. All the Justin Beliebers on Twitter and YouTube trolls should take some time to watch or look at something worth consuming.
  3. Sponsor someone to create scientific content, or do it yourself. If you happen to know a celeb, get them involved – ask them to drop some potassium on water or create a bicarbonate volcano.

Peace, aimafidon

3 responses to “The state of STEM – why we need to make a concerted effort to help everyone enjoy Science

  1. Pingback: Big Society 2.0 – Can we make it easier for citizens to contribute to social change? « A-Marie Imafidon : blog·

  2. Pingback: The case for women leadership in Technology and beyond – my month on the East coast | A-Marie Imafidon : blog·

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