Elon Musk is a master at getting science into the headlines. Never more so than when he launched a Tesla Roadster into orbit around the Sun on a SpaceX rocket and left it there playing David Bowie to the heavens.
But the excitement generated by science and technology heroes such as Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page still isn’t filtering through to the younger generation – and in particular girls and children from minority communities – as Britain continues to battle a gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (also known as STEM) skills.
With the number of high-skilled jobs growing, 61 per cent of UK businesses questioned for the 2017 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey expressed a lack of confidence that there will be enough people to fill job vacancies of this kind in the future. The bottom line? Science heroes alone are not enough.
"Traditionally the idea was that all you needed to do was inspire kids, just make science interesting, and they would take it up,” says UCL professor Louise Archer, who directs three national research projects looking at what makes STEM stick. But the real key to turning a young person into a chemical engineer, pharmacologist or operational researcher is what the Aspires research project led by Archer has called “science capital”. This refers to how much science-based information, activity and involvement a child experiences. It’s grounded in their family and upbringing and includes:
Families with lots of science capital vary widely. Some might have parents who work in a lab; others do kitchen-sink science experiments with their kids. Others could be amateur rocketeers, build their own computers, talk about science news stories around the dinner table or simply be big fans of the TV personality and physicist, Brian Cox. But they all share an interest in science and make it a part of everyday family life and leisure time.
“The more science capital you have, the more you see yourself as a science person – and the more likely you are to aspire to do that as a career,” says Archer. The lack of science capital in most families helps explain the lack of young STEM recruits.
In an effort to start building those connections as early as possible, the organisation STEM Learning, the UK’s largest provider of STEM education and careers support, matches schools with working scientists and engineers. Its 30,000 STEM Ambassadors include engineers, designers, architects and technicians who help school and college students connect with these subjects; 43 per cent of its volunteers are women and more than 60 per cent are aged under 35.
“These people can really bring science and technology to life and show how STEM skills shape our lives,” says Yvonne Baker, STEM Learning’s chief executive and a former chemical engineer.“ Often the most powerful stories are about how they got into STEM careers themselves.”
They also help teachers contextualise science subjects in ways that have a lasting impact on the young people they teach. “That can be really powerful because it gives the teachers great examples they can use in the classroom,” she says.
STEM Learning runs schemes that give teachers hands-on experience of today’s STEM workplaces – be it a lab, manufacturing plant or university research department. Inspiring young people in science is often easier if a teacher can relate examples from their own experience.
Teaching topics such as quadratic equations can be tricky, for instance, but it can be made more accessible when children are told how the maths helps shape and refine turbine blades for jets and power stations. Bestowing this familiarity on primary-school teachers is key because so few of them have studied science beyond GCSE level, says Baker.
The Royal Academy of Engineering has put the idea of science capital into practice via projects in deprived areas. Since 2005, it has run schemes in London, Barrow-in-Furness, Stoke, Lowestoft, and most recently the Welsh Valleys, to help children become familiar with technical subjects.
It gives finance and other resources to schools so they can improve science teaching, says Lynda Mann, head of education programmes at the Royal Academy. It also supports schools taking part in national science and technology-themed events, such as robotics challenges and the Big Bang competition.
All the schemes involve local employers – in the case of Barrow, this includes Siemens and BAE Systems – who bring their professional experience to the classroom. The impact is clear. In Barrow, the proportion of students taking three science subjects at GCSE grew by 370 per cent, while the proportion of students taking AS-level physics grew by 32 per cent at a time when nationally that figure fell by 24 per cent.
“It can take just one thing to happen to ignite that spark in a pupil,” says Mann, “but then you need to keep it going as they progress through school and beyond.”
The building of “science capital” extends to teachers and other STEM practitioners – and a new Academy created by the Science Museum Group is planning to equip them with the stories and experiences that can bring science to life in the classroom, based on ground-breaking academic research.
We live in an age of miracles. But for most people, the flying-machines, instant communication and medical breakthroughs might have come about by magic. Few are familiar with the nuts and bolts, whether made of steel, semi-conductors or living cells.
“Many people see science as something that is abstract and theoretical, with little real-life application,” says Susan Raikes, director of learning at the Science Museum Group. “They can’t see where it will bring value to their lives or how it could help them with their aspirations or ambitions.”
The Group hopes to turn that around via its new Academy, which opened in September. Informed by research carried out by Professor Louise Archer and the Science Capital Research team at UCL Institute of Education, the Academy will share practical ideas to empower teachers and other education professionals to show how science is connected to – and valuable in – everyday life.
It aims to help educators develop ways to get girls and young people from all backgrounds currently under-represented in technical careers to consider a future in science.
BP is helping fund the Academy to try to create a generation of STEM workers from all backgrounds who can help fill the gaps in the UK’s workforce. That talent is needed to take on the big issues, says Ian Duffy, BP’s head of UK communications and community development, including moving the country to a lower-carbon future.