Vision Scotland: Rising to the skills challenge

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Advances in science and technology are happening at a rapid pace; less than a decade ago it would have been hard to imagine a world in which cars can drive themselves, shopping is delivered by a drone and replacement organs can be simply printed by a machine.

As we increasingly rely on new technologies, more than 203,000 engineers will be needed each year through to 2024 to meet demand, warns Engineering UK.

The not-for-profit’s research estimates there will be a 59,000-a-year shortfall in the number of engineers annually.

In Scotland, however, the government’s strategy entitled Making Scotland a STEM Nation aims to reduce that figure over the next four years with key areas including increased STEM teacher numbers and addressing gender stereotyping.

Such a plan is needed if Scotland wants to be a leader in innovation as an estimated 65 per cent of pre-school children will work in jobs that have yet to be created.

Head of education at Edinburgh Science Festival Joan Davidson says: “It is about filling in that skills gap that our supporters and various other companies are concerned about.

“They just do not have enough people with the skills they need coming into their businesses, so we try to inspire people.”

Generation Science exposes the wide-ranging opportunities of STEM subjects to primary school children through classroom visits, which involve interactive shows and workshops as part of the Curriculum for Excellence.

Each year, more than 56,000 children take part in the outreach programme run by the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Hands-on workshops include robot building, programming with Lego, understanding how bees carry pollen between plants and generating electricity.

Davidson says: “The programme also aims to support teachers, especially primary school teachers, to increase their confidence when it comes to STEM subjects.

“A number of them might not have studied any sort of science or technology since they were about 16, so it is about going into that classroom and providing that inspiration.”

Davidson, who has a degree in environmental geoscience, claims a key issue is a lack of awareness.

“Sometimes in schools it is not clear exactly what STEM is and people are not realising the amount of possibilities it brings.”

She points to the NHS as an example of where specialists in STEM subjects are in demand.

“We need software engineers there and we need engineers to develop and design prosthetic limbs and even 3D printed organs, which I think is amazing.

“One person who said they weren’t good at maths or science wanted to help his granny to read her medicine bottle.

“As a graphic designer, he wanted to make the bottle easier to read and that can be done by working for a STEM company in their marketing team.”

While science and technology advances, many traditional jobs will still be required by STEM companies like HR, marketing and management professionals, a point echoed by Kevin McKeever, director for Fife-based STEM East.

It is part of the free STEM Ambassador Hubs scheme, run by STEM Learning, which helps teachers and educational groups bring STEM to life for all ages.

Its UK-wide team includes volunteers with backgrounds ranging from zoology, climate change, architecture and financial services.

McKeever says: “I was speaking to a group of S5 pupils and I asked for a show of hands for which subjects they would associate with the food and drinks industry and an overwhelming majority, as you would probably expect, said home economics.

“I had to pose the question to them: what about science and engineering?

“If you think back to the botulism outbreak or horsemeat scandal, those two examples highlight the need for scientists.”

Although schools and education groups approach the hubs most often, the number of employers seeking engagement with schools through the initiative has risen in recent years.

“I think the penny’s beginning to drop as well with employers in that if they want the right people with the right skills for their organisations, they need to be engaging with young people,” he says.

“A lot of it comes back to early intervention, even when the children are at primary school. Our view has always been firm that that is the best time to try and persuade curious minds.”

An added bonus for becoming an ambassador is being put through the government’s Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme – and females are particularly encouraged to apply.

McKeever stresses that a key concern in the engineering and science industries is stereotyping and gender imbalance.

“There are not enough girls, not enough females who did STEM subjects at schools and one of the things that we are always keen to do is break down barriers where the use of STEM ambassadors can be real, positive role models.”

Fighting against stereotypes is Team AcceleRace, an all-girls side from Linlithgow Academy who raced into the world final of the F1 in Schools Challenge in Singapore, with support from Cathcart Associates.

The global initiative challenges school pupils between nine and 19 to design and build the fastest compressed air-powered cars and involves all aspects of engineering including physics, design, branding and finances.

A government-funded cyber security programme run by Skills Development Scotland (SDS) aimed at S1 and S3 pupils is also inspiring girls through face-to-face events and online sessions, and has led girls into various residential summer programmes.

The partnership project between SDS, Education Scotland and industry started last year and received funding for a total of four years.

Digital technologies sector skills manager Claire Gillespie believes cyber security underpins all jobs.

She says: “We are very much thinking about how we make that actual event attractive to young girls.

“We make sure we have really strong role models at our events and want to make them neutral, so we do simple things like watching masculine and feminine language and imagery.

“We have also developed lesson plans for teachers to use because some girls might choose different subjects over others, so these plans allow teachers to blend cyber security into other environments where you are more likely to get a bigger cohort of girls. “

She adds: “That wide range of STEM skills that people need to learn involves problem solving and analytical thinking and very much relates to cyber security.

“A lot of cyber security is about thinking of the unusual way of doing something.

“It is that innovation that will make things different in the future and will hopefully protect us as organisations.”

Case Study: Aidan McCann

Aidan McCann is one of the Scottish Engineering Leaders Award’s key success stories after having his Trolley for the Elderly recognised by the Glasgow Science Centre.

While in Primary 7 at Cromarty Primary School, in the Black Isle, McCann took part in the national competition, inspired by his 75-year-old grandmother who struggled to lift her shopping out of a conventional trolley.

His design lifts and lowers at the flip of a switch and was the first from the competition to be manufactured.

It involves pupils interviewing engineers and finding solutions to problems.

The awards have been delivered for the last five years by Primary Engineer, supported by Scottish Engineering.

Pupils experience the creativity in engineering through a problem solving, literacy and entrepreneurial project which involves more than 23,800 pupils each year.

McCann’s design was built by masters of engineering students at Strathclyde University who ran a series of blog posts and videos to engage children as they built it.

The prototype was put on display at Glasgow Science Centre at the end of last year in hope of inspiring the next generation of innovators.

Case study: Abbey Thomson

Now 21 and embarking on an operations role at Shell’s St Fergus gas terminal in Aberdeenshire, Abbey Thomson credits her career to the year-long energy to Shell’s Girls in Energy scheme which she undertook in S3 at Mintlaw Academy.

She says: “I think that is what guided me towards STEM subjects for my Highers.

“It opens up your eyes to what is out there and really helps build up your conference. If I hadn’t gone on the programme I don’t think I would have had the confidence that I have today.”

She is one of 600 girls who have participated in the programme led by North East Scotland College and Fife College.

It involves weekly lessons, field visits and a two-week work placement at Shell’s Upstream Headquarters in Aberdeen.

The programme breaks stereotypes and shows secondary school girls that a career in energy is not resigned to an off-shore platform.

Case Study: Scottish Space School

“Space is a topic that is particularly effective in engaging young people with STEM subjects because there is nothing else like it,” says Marianne Ballantyne, manager of electronic and electrical engineering at Strathclyde University.

More than 1,700 Scottish secondary pupils have participated in the University’s summer Space School and, since it began, more than 9,000 are in well-paid jobs with prospects in science and technology.

Guests from NASA, including female astronauts, engage with the pupils during a week of workshops, labs and lectures, after which ten go visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Ballantyne says: “Careers in engineering and science are hugely varied and exciting and play a crucial part in the development of the world.

“People in these fields are literally building the future and the demand for their skills is high.

“This means graduates in STEM subjects have a great deal of choice on the job market and can earn high salaries.”

Case Study: TechFest

This year is the 25th anniversary the North-east’s festival of science, technology, engineering and maths, which runs until 22 September.

Olympic curler Jackie Lockhart will share stories from her career while former Team GB curler Tom Brewtser will provide technical insight into how the ice can affect the outcome of a match.

The festival is aimed at all ages and will include activities across venues such as Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen University.

Managing director Sarah Chew says: “The festival was established to offer audiences the chance to explore how STEM subjects can be applied in a range of sectors, disciplines and in our daily lives.

She adds: “STEM is not just about experiments and lab coats – it’s all around us. We believe it’s vital to give young people a taster of how STEM skills can be used in some of Scotland’s biggest sectors, such as food and drink and energy.”

This article appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. A digital version can be found here.