“Giving STEM subjects the focus, care, and respect they deserve yields results: a lesson which other schools – always having to divide their attentions – would do well to heed”
Nick Waite, Principal of Bellerbys College Cambridge, writes about investing in STEM and specialisation in higher education.
In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion laid the groundwork for classical mechanics; in 2014, a British scientist helped land a spacecraft on a comet by following these principles. Over hundreds of years, STEM graduates have changed the course of human history – and the scope of what we believe to be possible. In the last few decades alone, it’s led to major advances in cancer treatment, sanitation and sustainable energy research – to say nothing of its impact on technology, which is an essential part of our everyday lives and a major contributor to the economy.
“Over hundreds of years, STEM graduates have changed the course of human history – and the scope of what we believe to be possible”
The reality is that there’s no good argument against investing in STEM subjects: they contribute to the sum of human understanding, they’re in high demand among prospective employers, and they’re big business. So why is there a distinct lack of funding and focus in this area? The consequences are all too clear to see – a report from The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that over 40% of its members had trouble recruiting students from STEM backgrounds, and most don’t expect the situation to improve.
It’s easy to blame this on the academic sector, where pupils are able to choose from a smorgasbord of courses – the majority of which do not fall under the STEM umbrella. Easy, perhaps, but unfair. 98,000 students enrolled on STEM courses last year (an 18% improvement on the figures from 2002/03), and 27 universities got £5m worth of funding from the UK government.
I believe the problem is more deeply-rooted than that. There’s strong evidence that schools aren’t giving the field the care it deserves. Whilst in the US, there has been significant investment from companies to aid STEM education, the pickup in Europe has been less rapid. There needs to be a global consensus on the importance of this subject area which we are currently lacking.
“Whilst in the US, there has been significant investment from companies to aid STEM education, the pickup in Europe has been less rapid”
There is, however, a solution. I’ve worked in the education sector for several years now, but in my role as principal of Bellerbys College Cambridge, I’ve seen for myself that students thrive when they can focus their efforts into courses that are tailored to their strengths and interests. This will broaden and develop their knowledge, as they share ideas with like-minded people. I am referring here to the concept of specialisation in higher education.
We’ve invested considerably in creating a specialised science and engineering programme, and I believe the results speak for themselves: our curriculum of GCSE, A-Level and Foundation courses has attracted a vibrant community of passionate, highly motivated students. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we’re located in Cambridge: the famous stomping grounds of scientists like Stephen Hawking and the aforementioned Newton, and home to a robust STEM community – with ample networking opportunities – today.
Higher education holds the key here. Students have developed a deeper understanding of their interests and can now decide which direction to take their education. They also recognise the global issues we currently face and come equipped with the means to help tackle them. STEM subjects can make a vital contribution here. From global technology to enterprise, it will – for better or worse – decide the direction in which humanity will develop. Giving them the focus, care, and respect they deserve yields results: a lesson which other schools – always having to divide their attentions – would do well to heed.