Why your business should go back to school and do two key things to support STEM teaching and learning

In the wake of Project ENTHUSE's recent report on business support for STEM in schools, Ian Duffy, community development manager at supporting company BP discusses two key roles business can play to inspire the next generation of STEM students.

Providing support for STEM teachers may not seem like a business issue, but UK businesses are facing a skills gap that limits business and economic growth because not enough young people are choosing to study STEM-related subjects after the age of 16.

This STEM skills gap is not new, but the problem is further compounded by the narrow range of students who choose to study particular STEM subjects or pursue certain STEM careers. Women, working class and some ethnic minority groups remain underrepresented in some disciplines and/or occupations, particularly physical sciences and engineering. This means swathes of potential talent are untapped and that many businesses are missing out on the benefits of a diverse workforce. 

Teachers are crucial in developing and inspiring young people to become the scientists and engineers of the future. Businesses must support teachers to make STEM-related subjects more relatable if we are to attract more and diverse young people to study these subjects.  

There are two key roles that business can play in supporting STEM-related teaching and learning; building the ‘science capital’ of all young people and helping teachers develop their knowledge of STEM-related careers now and into the future. 

Getting young people to like science isn’t enough – you need to build ‘science capital’

Most students recognise that science could be useful for getting a good job.  However, far fewer feel such jobs are attainable or relevant to them. These perceptions are held even by those who enjoy and are good at science and are more likely to be held by female, working class and some minority ethnic, particularly black, students. 

These groups tend to have low levels of ‘science capital’; limited exposure to scientific concepts and the world of STEM, which those with high levels of science capital generally gain through family members’ qualifications, occupations and/or interests. The greater the level of science capital, the more likely a student is to study science post-16. If business can help those young people lacking science capital it will increase the likelihood of young people from all backgrounds engaging with STEM.

Examples of how businesses can improve levels of science capital can be found in the Project ENTHUSE report.

Helping improve teacher knowledge and confidence

Young people are nearly 20 per cent more likely to ask subject teachers for advice than careers advisers, so it is vital that STEM subject teachers are able to correctly and confidently promote STEM career pathways. 86% of teachers feel that businesses should play a role in helping teachers understand what skills students need to pursue a STEM career. Businesses co-delivering activities such as Careers Lab alongside teaching staff, can help develop the knowledge of staff and students. Teacher placement schemes in business, business-led workshops or open days for teachers can also help teaching staff better understand the STEM careers landscape and advise students appropriately. BITC’s Business Class programme is an excellent way for businesses to build engagement with local schools and to support their teachers.

The quality of teaching is one of the greatest influences over whether or not a child chooses to continue studying science. No one is suggesting that businesses should replace teachers or text books, however there are ways that businesses can help teachers and, through doing so, potentially encourage more young people to study STEM subjects. Businesses can support professional development opportunities, support teaching staff in areas that stretch them, offer insights on and off the curriculum and enable them to deliver more engaging lessons that also reinforce the relevance of the subject. Allowing young people to imagine themselves using science and maths skills in their future lives may encourage them to pursue STEM subjects post-16. 

All businesses have an interest in ensuring there will be a future workforce with the right skills to meet their needs. Many businesses are already working on this agenda but it is all too easy for projects, well-intentioned and with significant business investment, to simply duplicate existing activities. What this report does is suggest two key ways that businesses can help achieve real change to STEM teaching and learning. Whether your business is already working in education or not I urge you to read the Project ENTHUSE report to see how your organisation can respond to its recommendations.

If you are a business with an interest in seeing more young people interested in pursuing STEM careers there is further information in Why your business should go back to school: How you can inspire the next STEM generation.