Sunday, 2 February 2014

No STEM without roots

The recent visit of Mersey STEM and the teachers' interest group, together with the wide ranging activities aimed at promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in schools, colleges and Universities, made me realise that it is over 10 years since Sir Gareth Roberts published the first National Level Report on STEM. Linking to my discussion on evidence, it made me wonder what, if any, progress has been made since then. In his undergraduate text on Enzyme Kinetics, my PhD supervisor Professor Paul Engel, remarked that undergraduates approached Enzyme Kinetics (quantifying the rates of enzyme catalysis) in the same way that they approached Latin and cold showers. Whilst the comparison is a little dated:  I think it makes the point well and is probably more widely applicable to STEM. 

Over the last 10 years, STEM initiatives to raise awareness and interest in STEM subjects have been funded, implemented and evaluated. So, are more students interested in STEM subjects? Are more students taking STEM examinations? Are more people applying for STEM courses at University? Are employers claiming that there are improvements in numeracy of school-leavers and graduates? Importantly, where do you find the information?

The Government provides a wealth of data on trends in Education, at all levels. So when I looked at the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data on changes in student courses, there was, for example, between 2010 and 2011, a 2% net increase in students applying for STEM related courses (I include Medicine, Vet Science, Biology, Sciences and Maths and Computing). During 2007-2011 there has been an increase from 1.8 to 1.9m students taking undergraduate courses. So a 2% increase for 2011 translates to around 38 000 new science graduates due next summer. I wondered whether this was a significant impact, given the efforts made at Schools and Universities, to engage students in Science (starting with major activities n 2004, but allowing a period of three years for the impact of these strategies to emerge). So in 2007 there where 557 000 students studying STEM subjects and by 2011 this had risen to 632 000. All good so far, an additional 75 000 Scientists, an increase of around 13%. I then compared this with the total numbers of students registering at Universities in the same period: 1.48m compared with 1.72m, which is an increase of 16%. So my conclusion is that STEM initiatives have failed to change the interests of school students: the proportion of students engaging in Science is not significantly different. 

So what should be done about this? What is most revealing, is the underlying issue: the public are uncomfortable about Science: "In a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, only 36 percent of Americans reported having "a lot" of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. Fifty-one percent said they trust that information only a little, and another 6 percent said they don't trust it at all." We believe that this is one of the most compelling arguments for the development of UTCs. Moreover, that as a group of students, interested and enthusiastic about Science, which was expressed so eloquently by Jack and Libby on Thursday, you will be the force that changes this perception. So here are a few suggestions that you should pass on to your friends and family.

Vaccines:                 Polio has been eradicated by Science
Antibiotics:              Infectious diseases are under control
Irrigation/purification:  Imagine life without clean water
Computing:                No Internet or smart phones
Electrons:                No TV

Think of some others yourselves and make it your mission to promote Science as something that is not only vital to our Society, but also both fascinating and fulfilling. Also, whilst antibiotics have been revolutionary, their mis-use is causing problems: so more Scientists are needed and it is our responsibility to communicate these problems clearly with non-scientists using the best evidence.

1 comment:

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