Created on Monday, 06 February 2017 00:00 | Written by Carol Monaghan

The need for STEM careers

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Like many Glaswegians, I had a grandad who worked in the shipyards. Being brought up in Scotstoun, the sirens of Yarrows and the crowds of men leaving work in the evening formed a familiar childhood backdrop. Alongside this, my dad was an avid amateur historian who proudly told us stories of great Scottish figures from the past, so by the time I started working as a physics teacher in the early 90s, Scotland's history of science and engineering was ingrained in me. However, I was also deeply frustrated. Why was the Scottish Enlightenment, which contributed so much to the advancement of science worldwide, not considered worthy of our school curriculum? And how could children be inspired to play their part in future innovation if they were kept in the dark about Scotland's rich scientific heritage?

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In June 2015, as a newly elected parliamentarian, I was delighted to be appointed to the Science and Technology Select Committee. Although committee work was new to me, my experience of lively departmental meetings in a Glasgow comprehensive school helped. As a committee member with a science background - a rare combination I was to discover - many people were keen to chat to me after sessions and I received invitations to a host of fascinating venues. From the blue-skies research of CERN, challenging our very perceptions of the universe, to the engineering production lines of BAE Systems in Scotstoun and Govan; what these establishments all have in common is the ongoing challenge of finding, recruiting and retaining suitable STEM-qualified staff.

When we discuss what can be done to encourage young people, and particularly girls, to follow a STEM career path, we talk of positive role models, industry engagement and the importance of good teachers. However, despite stories of success, there is still a long way to go. When my own son completed fifth year with a clutch of A’s, the reaction from many was to ask if a career in medicine was on the cards.

When we consider a young person's educational journey, the initial stages are positive. Children are naturally scientific-minded with topics such as dinosaurs, space and explosions fuelling early scientific enquiry. Progressing to secondary school and the science lab, simple tasks like lighting a Bunsen burner for the first time hold great fascination. As they move through their school years and start choosing subjects, science continues to feature strongly. But despite our best students achieving a strong set of results with the potential to become a top-notch young scientist or engineer, we continue to haemorrhage our talent to law, dentistry or medicine.

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What has to change is society's view of STEM careers. The language used is part of the problem. “Industry” conjures up images of boiler suits and manual labour. We loosely talk about the “engineer” coming round to fix our car or central heating boiler. What we are doing is exposing our children to images of a profession which show only a small part of a very diverse sector. I had the pleasure of visiting Clyde Space in Finnieston last year; world leaders in design and manufacture of cube-SATS. As I entered, the left-hand side of their open-plan facility was set out with rows of computers. Many members of the public would be surprised to find that the staff in designer jeans and t-shirts who joked easily with each other, were the engineers; such is the general stereotype of this profession.

Glasgow Science Centre has done great work both in challenging stereotypes and in linking to our rich heritage of innovation. When visiting the Centre recently to see the Powering the Future exhibition, I brought a couple of critics in the shape of my six and nine-year-old daughters. We took the lift to the second floor where the exhibition is housed, and as the doors of the lift opened we were met with a wall of noise. Delighted whoops and excited shouts were coming from every angle. The exhibits were busy with everyone from toddlers to grandparents fully immersed in a true "hands-on" experience. The fact that I instantly lost both my daughters demonstrates its appeal. But why it worked for me was that during the journey home, my daughters were still talking about how electromagnets worked and the hydroelectric power stations they had seen on holiday. We must not underestimate the potential of facilities like this to inspire the next generation.

A resource like the Glasgow Science Centre is undoubtedly playing an important role in inspiring the next generation of scientists; but this can only go so far.

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It is easy to blame teachers for every societal problem and I used to scream inwardly when parents would ask me why we didn't talk to pupils about the relevance of science or arrange trips to see “real science” in action. Of course we did both; but visits to a science centre or a local STEM employer are only a tiny snapshot in a child's life. The major influencers are the parents and the media - they have many more opportunities to get under the skin of our young people.

If any government is serious about the promotion of STEM careers, this cannot be left only to teachers, science centres or STEM employers. We need to start seeing scientists and engineers featuring on TV; women have to be shown in successful technical careers; job prospects and their earning potential must be highlighted, especially to parents. Teachers are fighting to overcome stereotypes that are entrenched before a child even starts school. A few years ago, my then five-year-old daughter specified that she wanted “boys’ Lego” from Santa. There are many disturbing aspects to this, but most worryingly is that a child so young is already aware of the expected gender roles.

So there has to be action; and it has to come in a way that can influence both parents and children. I want to know what a typical engineer can earn. I want to hear about the travel opportunities for scientists. And I want the language we use to describe these professionals to include a sense of respect and non-monetary value. And as for my son with his collection of A’s… he’s off to Strathclyde in a fortnight to study engineering!

About Carol Monaghan MP

Carol Monaghan has been the MP for Glasgow North West since May 2015 and is the SNP Public Services and Education spokesperson in the House of Commons. She studied at Strathclyde University, graduating with a BSc (Hons) in Laser Physics and Optoelectronics in 1993. She had formerly been a physics teacher and head of science at Hyndland Secondary School. Carol is married to Glasgow City councilor and physics teacher Feargal Dalton, and they have a son and two daughters.

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