‘Like the Lionesses, educators need to… tackle underrepresentation in STEM’

By Hayri Bulman, CEO and founder of QUBS

The UK has long been a technological and scientific powerhouse. This has, in large part, been a result of its education system inspiring the country’s youth to research, innovate, invent, and discover. However, like many developed nations, the UK now faces a skills shortage in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Moreover, the economy is changing. Technology is playing an increasingly important role in driving growth and innovation across all industries. In order to sustain this technological boom, people are needed to invent, create, and maintain these new technologies.

The increasing demand for STEM subjects skills

We are now witnessing groundbreaking advancements across a multitude of sectors, including computing and engineering as well as the digitalisation of jobs and roles that were once heavily relied upon by humans, as a result of AI solutions. With this, STEM occupations’ share of the job market is only going to grow. This is a major concern to employers and universities alike as the country is clearly struggling to raise the next generation of technical experts to meet this demand and compete internationally.

For the fourth year in a row, the UK has seen a rise in students choosing A level computing

According to the Commission for Employment and Skills, 43% of STEM vacancies exist due to a shortage of applicants. The UK’s 2022 Digital Strategy is at least beginning to address concerns with an increased focus on improving the workforce’s core capabilities. For the fourth year in a row, the UK has even seen a rise in students choosing A level computing. This investment and interest in digital skills is a step in the right direction, though, to truly tackle the issue, we must first look into what’s behind the low number of graduates entering STEM occupations. We need to trace this lack of passion for STEM subjects back to the earliest level.

The importance of play in early years development

An inspiring teacher, an engaging lesson or an extracurricular trip can all contribute to a child’s development and nurture their passion for STEM subjects. While this must not be overlooked, we also need to think beyond and before the classroom.

Introducing children to STEM subjects through play at an early age can go a tremendous way towards bridging the skills gap. Play in early childhood is fundamental to development and essential for learning, practising, and developing new skills. Parents have always played a key role in encouraging literacy skills, either through reading stories during infancy, providing children books once they are able to read, or via extended conversations during the early stages of speech development.

Introducing children to STEM subjects through play at an early age can go a tremendous way towards bridging the skills gap

A 2019 survey undertaken by The Toy Association found that 91% of parents recognise the value of encouraging the development of STEM skills in their kids. So, why is a similar approach not applied to equally important scientific and computational skills? Many parents may aspire to raise scientifically minded and STEM-literate children, but lack the confidence or expertise to do so. This is where tools can help, in the form of STEM toys that can bridge the developmental gap or even help to start the journey.

How STEM toys work

Becoming a mainstay over recent years, STEM toys are a scientifically validated way to introduce children to technical subjects such as computer programming, robotics, and the Internet Of Things. Naturally, then, they are an excellent way of mitigating a lack of public investment in early years STEM education.

The basis of STEM toys is that they teach a method, whether this be design, engineering, scientific, or otherwise. Children naturally draw conclusions through cause and effect as they experiment with immediate surroundings. They are also capable of incredible concentration when diving deeply into problems. Parents can harness this natural curiosity through play whilst safely teaching the skills needed to better equip children for an increasingly technical world.

The basis of STEM toys is that they teach a method, whether this be design, engineering, scientific, or otherwise

For instance, puzzle games and challenges can help teach kids to think like a programmer: being introduced to principles of debugging (the process of identifying a problem and correcting it) and sequencing (the specific order in which instructions are performed in an algorithm) through physical play. Essentially, this type of play encourages children to come up with their own hypotheses, then making and observing solutions to problems in real-time; a vital process for any STEM subjects.

Ultimately, a good STEM toy will introduce the principles of reason and logic whilst creating an association of fun when it comes to all aspects of science, technology, engineering, and maths. By introducing children to STEM concepts from an early age, through the medium of play, they will go on to develop those skills in the classroom with ease. This will also extend  later in their careers, as they will have adopted the technical way of thinking from infancy.

Inside the classroom

We should also not underlook the value that STEM toys have to offer in a school environment. The failure to engage with young children can often be an obstacle to helping them obtain STEM literacy. Schools, too, can enhance the classroom experience by adopting STEM toys into playtime, and by making science and maths lessons more interactive.

The failure to engage with young children can often be an obstacle to helping them obtain STEM literacy

Just last year, the Institution of Engineering and Technology sent an open letter to the UK government with a call for ‘Engineering Kids’ Futures’ to be formally introduced into schools. For teenagers, it’s vital that STEM subjects are properly funded and encouraged. However, for children who are too young to decide on subject choices, let alone future careers, STEM toys are a pragmatic and sensible option to get the ball rolling at the earliest stage in their educational journey.

It’s also worth noting that many parents may not be able to afford STEM toys at home. With this in mind, it can often fall to schools to address the imbalance and give access to tools and toys that will introduce children to STEM subjects within an educational setting, ensuring that no one falls behind.

Addressing the gender gap

It’s no secret that there is still a worrying disparity between boys and girls getting involved in STEM subjects. Consequently, later in life, women are only making up approximately one-quarter of the UK’s STEM workforce.

This summer, the Lionesses have inspired a new generation of young women to get into football through their victory in the UEFA Euro finals. Like the Lionesses, educators need to find different ways to dismantle the stereotypical dividers between male and female subjects and tackle underrepresentation in STEM. Yet again, this can be achieved by starting at a young age with STEM subjects. Ensuring that tools such as toys and educational programmes are completely unbiased of gender will go a long way to shifting this imbalance.

Play during the early stages of growth and development is essential for introducing children to all manner of life lessons, such as critical thinking and the basics of STEM subjects. From the early years of tummy time and discovering the world through their mouth, a child is a sponge, absorbing information through sensory impulses and play.

By integrating STEM subjects and coding methodology into daily routines and fun activities, people everywhere will have a clearer concept and understanding when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics later on in life regardless of gender or background.

Hayri Bulman is CEO and founder of QUBS


You might also like: Girls in STEM: the importance of diversifying engineering teams

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