Bridging the skills gap with early STEM education

How can we close the STEM skills gap?  


Stuart Naismith, award-winning science teacher and host of YouTube’s STEM with Mr N, discusses how teaching STEM from an early age can break the cycle and address issues of diversity within the tech industry.

What are some common myths about STEM?

Quite often people think STEM education is for older people. When you get to high school, that’s when you do your sciences – biology, chemistry, physics. But STEM education is actually for everybody.

Research has shown that an early introduction to STEM actually leads to long-term academic success, so it’s better to get involved early. There’s also this notion that STEM is only for the West – that it’s for white people and typically white males only. But that’s just not the case. STEM is so diverse, not just with the types of careers, but also the different types of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders. A lot of people working in STEM are trying to bust that myth.

It’s also not just about teaching science, technology, engineering and maths. It’s about new ways of thinking, problem-solving and coming up with creative ways to approach things. So it’s changing the way people think.

It also shouldn’t be approached as a separate part of the curriculum. Like, we’ve done our literacy, we’ve done our maths, so now we’re going to do our STEM. But there are lots of ways we should be linking in STEM education. Unfortunately, in a jam-packed curriculum, it’s quite often seen as a standalone part.

When trying to promote STEM campaigns for everyone, what do they look like in the context of a jam-packed curriculum? How are we breaking through?

There are training sessions for teachers to look at how we can approach diversity in STEM. So when topics are introduced in the classroom, that covers how they are spoken about and how the people who work in these industries are spoken about. Quite often, for example, it’s easy to slip into masculine pronouns when talking about certain careers. It’s about trying to break that cycle.

Recently, my council had a STEM careers fair which was about making people aware of the diverse range of careers available. Quite often, children and young people think about STEM careers as being doctors or scientists or computer technicians, but there’s so much more to it. So it’s about raising that awareness of careers that are out there, as well as some female role models who are working in STEM that young people can look up to with more visibility.

I recently asked an archaeologist if she had any STEM heroes as she was coming through her education. She said, “No, there was no visibility for anyone like me or for what I wanted to do.” She thought that would have really made a difference.

How can we implement STEM into early learning to avoid any skill gaps in the future?

If you’re starting in their early years, children are naturally inquisitive. My two-year-old son uses building blocks to see how big he can make a tower. As they start to get a bit more understanding of what you’re explaining to them, you can start their STEM education straight away. So for engineering, ask them “How can we make this tower bigger without it falling over?”

You can also use nursery rhymes. With things like The Three Little Pigs, tell them the story. “Okay, the three little pigs had three different houses: one of hay, one of sticks and one of stone. So let’s try and construct their houses and see which is sturdiest.” Then you can try and blow them down in lots of different ways, whether that’s with a fan or a hair dryer. There’s your engineering coming in again.

So from as early an age as possible, just encourage that curiosity and help them explore things.

England was one of the first countries to begin mandatory coding for primary-school students, starting at age five. Then a year later in 2015, it became mandatory for kids in Australia. What does that mean for other countries, and also schools that might not have the same financial privilege to invest in coding for their curriculum?

This is a tricky one, and I’ve spoken to a number of colleagues to get a range of different perspectives from different schools in different areas. Coding is also part of the Scottish curriculum, but it’s a very jam-packed curriculum and it’s knowing how, when and where to fit things in.

Teacher confidence is an aspect that comes into this – a lot of teachers think coding is very complex, and it’s not. More needs to be done for enhanced teacher training in order to build that confidence and show them what coding is really like. Even for something as simple as the ScratchJr app, I’ve heard teachers say, “I’m not doing that. I don’t touch coding.” If teachers are not getting the training and the simple coding techniques, then pupils are not going to be able to progress from blocks onto even the simplest language programs like Python. There could end up being a skills gap within the education sector, so training is imperative.

You make an interesting point about schools not having the funds to do these things, and I actually think that is a big issue. If all the teachers are trained in coding and how to do it, but the school can’t afford the technology to support them, then all that training is going to waste.

The Scottish Government is tackling that right now by trying to get Micro:bit into every school. I can’t speak much about England or Australia’s education systems, but if coding is going to be mandatory, it needs to be backed up with the right tools. There’s no point saying, “You have to do this” if you’re not giving them the tools to be able to do it. You wouldn’t tell somebody to build you a house and not provide them with any bricks and mortar to put it together. The basics need to be there.

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