Shirley-Anne Somerville: STEM careers should be open to all

Science minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said she was confident of making the progress needed to secure Scotland's future as a STEM nation. Picture: Contributed
Science minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said she was confident of making the progress needed to secure Scotland's future as a STEM nation. Picture: Contributed
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Work is underway to encourage more women and those from deprived communities to consider careers in STEM, writes Shirley-Anne Somerville

Scotland has a rich history of expertise and achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Today our culture of innovation continues to thrive, a fact borne out by the relative growth of STEM-related sectors compared with the economy as a whole.

Data driven innovation alone has the potential to deliver £20 billion of productivity benefits for our economy over the next five years. The prize is an innovative, growing economy which creates more and better jobs for everyone in Scotland.

The current pace of technological change is unprecedented - it is transforming the way we work, conduct business, buy goods and communicate with one another.

The opportunities for those that adapt and lead these changes are substantial but to reap the benefits we must develop our pipeline of STEM talent and attract more people from under-represented groups such as women and those from deprived communities into careers in the sector.

To do that we need to understand attitudes to STEM, particularly among young people who are making choices about their future.

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One of the ways we are doing this is through the Young People in Scotland Survey and the latest research paper from the 2017 survey – STEM and Language Choices in Schools – showed some positive trends.

First and foremost it found that almost two thirds of respondents said they had chosen or thought they would study a STEM subject at school. It also reported an encouraging balance of girls and boys (67 per cent vs 63 per cent) choosing or intending to study STEM. Where young people indicated that they would be pursuing a career in a STEM industry, high numbers felt they would enjoy it or find it interesting (64 per cent).

However, the survey found some differences among young people growing up in different areas, with those from the most deprived areas in Scotland (SIMD 1) less likely than those in the least deprived areas (SIMD 5) to report they had chosen or were intending to study STEM.

And while the survey showed a good gender balance on choosing STEM, boys were more likely than girls to indicate that they wanted to go into a STEM career. Also, of those young people reporting that they did not plan to study STEM, girls were significantly more likely than boys to report that they did not think that they were good at STEM subjects (40 per cent vs 17 per cent).

These statistics underline the challenge I am determined to address. They also highlight why we must act urgently to improve the participation of girls and young people from more deprived communities in studying subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Through actions in our STEM strategy – published in October 2017 – we are challenging the unconscious bias and gender stereotyping that creates so many unnecessary barriers to participation, access and attainment.

For instance, we will seek to grow and spread the learning from the Institute of Physics’ Improving Gender Balance project throughout all schools with a dedicated team of experts to work alongside teachers and head teachers for the duration of the strategy’s five years.

Having the right number of teachers with the right skills in the right places is also paramount to the successful delivery of our ambitions for equity and excellence in Scottish education and for our STEM strategy.

We know that globally there are challenges to teacher recruitment in many subjects and that is why we are taking decisive action to make teaching an attractive career for STEM teachers.

Last week, applications opened for our new £20,000 STEM bursary programme for trainee teachers. These bursaries seek to encourage people working in a STEM role, with a STEM-related degree, to consider a career change into teaching by enabling people who would be giving up employment to afford the training required.

We have also extended our successful PGDE internship programme with Aberdeen University allowing a further 20 former oil and gas workers to train as teachers.

And over £1 million has gone from the Attainment Scotland Fund to universities to help develop new routes into teaching, including a focus on increasing the number of STEM teachers.

We know that change will take time but we must deliver on our STEM ambitions. I am confident that our work with educators, industry representatives and young people will deliver the progress needed to secure Scotland’s future as a STEM nation.

Shirley-Anne Somerville is the Scottish Government’s science minister