STEM subjects, which include science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are often heralded as key study areas for children at further and higher education level – and beyond.
STEM skills are said to be important across different career paths. And skilled STEM graduates are said to contribute to the competitiveness and productivity of the economy – with these skills considered to be crucial in many sectors.
But despite the importance placed on these “key subjects”, the recent Universities UK report shows the general trend for entries to science and mathematics A-levels – as a percentage of all A-level entries – has been heading downwards over the last 15 years.
Yet research from large scale national surveys conducted in the UK with 10- to 14-year-olds shows that most students enjoy learning science in school. But despite this enjoyment, the study also found that most students did not consider pursuing it as a career.
Gender and subject choices – made at the age of 14 – continue to be key factors in determining whether or not a student studies STEM subjects.
Schools and colleges play a significant role in nurturing enough students to the necessary attainment level (and with the necessary enthusiasm) to continue to study these subjects beyond school and college.
To help young people consider studying these subjects “post-16” – so for GCSEs or A-levels – it is important that they develop a positive attitude towards the subjects early on. And this is part of the reason why STEM “enrichment and enhancement activities” are now delivered across primary and secondary schools.
STEM enrichment and enhancement activities aim to motivate students and show them that science is “doable”. The focal point for these efforts has been the 11-16 age group – who are seen as being at a critical period for forming views on STEM and developing aspirations.
But my latest research shows that despite the good intentions of these programmes, students participating in these activities every year did not necessarily make STEM subject choices post-16.
Developing a passion?
In the study, I followed the subject choices and attainment levels of a number of year seven students, who participated in STEM enrichment and enhancement activities every year until they took their GCSEs.
As part of these programmes, children took part in science practical lessons, supported by ambassador visits, trips to laboratories, STEM centres and higher education institutions.
The GCSE results and subject choices made by these students were then followed up using the National Pupil Database.
The analysis showed that the students taking part in these activities every year did not score any higher than those who participated infrequently. And it also seems that these programmes had little impact on the pupils’ subject choice.
The data revealed that students who participated in these enrichment and enhancement activities were no more likely to consider making STEM subject choices than those pupils who had been less involved with the activities.
Bridging the gap
In international comparisons of mathematical and scientific understanding, the UK performs well overall. But to remain competitive in the knowledge economy, it is clear that more of the population needs to have functional mathematical skills as well as high-level specialist STEM skills.
But given that my research shows the current STEM sessions do not help to improve attainment levels of GCSE science or maths, and that they haven’t helped to increase or widen STEM participation post-16, we must take a new approach to identify what works.
This is important so that as a country the UK don’t become constrained in productivity due to a limited supply of skilled individuals. And to achieve this, we must find a way to increase attainment and participation in STEM subjects at all levels of compulsory and post-compulsory education.