STEM Outreach – Who Will be Left Behind?

By WISE Young Professionals’ Board member, Tariq Ismail, Inspiration and Engagement Specialist The Smallpeice Trust

The initial plan for my May entry was for me to interview a fascinating all-female group of students whom I met at an 4×4 engineering competition a few months back. One of the more trivial side-effects of this global pandemic has meant that events such as school competitions have disappeared, perhaps for a very long time, along with many of the things we take for granted which offer bursts of colour to the natural cadence our lives.

During this time of global and national crisis, it is more important than ever that young people understand the crucial role that STEM plays in society and how they can become a part of it.

To set some context, my background is a little different to the other members of the Young Professionals’ Board. Whilst the other members each represent an organisation working in different areas of STEM, I work for an outreach charity that actively encourages people to go into STEM careers, particularly engineering. This pandemic has presented us, and the people in similar organisations across the UK, with a unique set of challenges which we must overcome in creative ways.

Under normal circumstances

There are over >600 organisations in the UK helping young people engage with STEM. The charity I work for, The Smallpeice Trust, is one of the larger organisations in this space, focussing primarily on engineering. Though there are many of us, our goals are all, broadly speaking, very similar: run activities which allow young people to experientially explore STEM in a practical setting.

STEM Day – Smallpeice Trust

In an alternate reality, at this time of the year, we’d be ramping up our in-schools programme during the notoriously busy summer term, and making the final preparations for a large volume of residential courses at venues across the UK.

Young people from across the four nations would be travelling to host venues, meeting new people and working in teams to take on practical challenges set by groups of expert role model engineers representing their companies. It’s not without good reason: a growing body of research shows that activities which encourage encounters with STEM employers increase young peoples’ motivation to pursue STEM subjects. It all makes perfect sense: “if I can see it, I can be it”, right?

Every single one of those 600+ organisations is acutely aware of the damning statistics regarding the gender imbalance, and on the lack of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds within STEM. Both gender balance and diversity and inclusion are areas the Royal Academy of Engineering perpetually highlight as requiring improvement in their State of Engineering report, released annually.

Some worrying early data suggest that these gaps are going to get wider as a result of this pandemic. It will take a creative approach to ensure that as we adapt our outreach programmes to be COVID-compliant, we continue to reduce those gaps, rather than widening them further.

How have we and others risen to the challenge of COVID?

The citizens of the world have been rapidly and dutifully adapting to our new shared reality. Virtual pub quizzes, livestreamed gigs, and collaborative art projects are a few examples of the ways in which people have held on to some sense of normalcy.

My family have even managed to get my grandparents on FaceTime and, though they struggle with the fundamentals of lighting and composition, they’ve managed to adapt to the new technology with relative ease.

Though the arts and hospitality sectors were perhaps the earliest adopters of the new virtual methodologies, technology clearly has an important part to play in education and outreach too. Many providers, including ourselves, have switched from ‘in-schools’ to ‘at-home’.

Within a few days of the lockdown taking effect, I was bombarded with links to various online STEM activities, hoping to offer a helping hand to parents who now found themselves as full-time teachers, and have since been working with my colleagues to make resources of our own to add to the growing pool.

Moving activities online has some obvious positive side effects. The potential audience you can reach is suddenly hugely increased. People can work through activities at their own pace and it means that parents and carers can work with their children on projects together.

There’s only so much that can be moved online…

However online resources do have their challenges. When we work in schools, we have, quite literally, a captive audience. The peril of being sent back to regular timetabled double-history is enough ‘encouragement’ to ensure a good level of engagement from the students. Though distractions exist in a classroom, we’re now fighting against the allure of the games console, the book, the hundreds of thousands of hours of streaming content available at the touch of a button. No pressure.

Then there’s the issue of audience. Our in-school audience is a mix of students from different backgrounds, genders, communities, meaning that we can often reach young people who may not have considered our message before. Our at-home audience is largely an unknown quantity, all we know is they are actively seeking STEM activities.

Educational Inequality

There’s also the problem of educational inequality. A paper produced by The Sutton Trust lays out a few distinct challenges faced by large groups of young people. They found that 34% of parents with children aged 5-16 reported that their child does not have access to their own computer, laptop or tablet from which they can access the internet. A secondary issue, and one that is often taken for granted is the lack of suitable space for many young people to work at home. These factors have the potential to leave many young people behind.

The working from home gap

Another area to address is that division of labour appears to be receding towards traditional gender stereotypes. A piece of research from Germany has showed that for women with children, working from home sees them spend more time caring for children than their male counterparts – a total of three extra hours per week – compared to zero additional hours for men. There is work to do to ensure that any stereotypes being reinforced by young people’s home environment are challenged by the role models they are exposed to elsewhere.

How do we begin to overcome these issues?

There are clearly a diverse range of challenges to overcome if we’re able to provide meaningful activities for young people which encourage girls, minorities, and people from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds into STEM.

Organisations across the STEM spectrum can help to support outreach and education in many ways. It could be by offering help with producing and delivering online activities. In lieu of face-to-face interactions, connecting employers with young people is still possible, whether these interactions take place online or through more traditional means.

For those students who are unable to access resources at home, we must increase the level of support them when schools finally reopen, to make sure that the gap is not permanently widened.

None of these challenges can be overcome by any single company or organisation, a collaborative approach is key. We all have a part to play to inspire the next generation, when the world finally reopens.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The pandemic has provided yet more proof of the adaptability of humankind. I believe there is a real opportunity for innovation, a chance to connect with young people in an environment many will feel most comfortable in. Generation Z is often berated for constantly being on their phones and laptops, but look at the rest of us now, following their lead.

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