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Informing choices and building aspirations - STEM careers in the North East

Why is there a tendency for girls, young people from working class backgrounds and minority ethnic groups to shun careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)? According to ASPIRES, children from families that are knowledgeable about, actively interested in, and have social contacts employed in STEM related areas are more likely to pursue a career in STEM, and the majority of such people are from white, middle class backgrounds. The NUSTEM group at Northumbria University is working to increase the diversity by increasing the understanding and accessibility of STEM across the school age range; building research tools to aid in the exploration of career aspirations and science self-identity with primary-school children, and designing interventions to support future career choices. Working with a network of thousands of children, parents and teachers across the North East of England, their work is influencing employability in the region, engaging under-represented groups and inspiring similar outreach programmes across the UK and internationally.

Launched in 2014, NUSTEM aims to encourage future generations of scientists and engineers, and redress the balance of female students and under-represented groups studying STEM subjects in universities. Dr Carol Davenport and her team of multidisciplinary specialists have been working with around 30 schools in the North East to deliver fascinating workshops, events, and continuing professional development (CPD) courses that are both informed by sector research and inform NUSTEM’s own studies on impact and its developing Theory of Change.

Importantly, by facilitating interactions between researchers, school children, teachers and parents, NUSTEM also directly supports Northumbria’s Faculty of Engineering and Environment’s public engagement and outreach activities, offering an avenue for scientists to share their research. One typical example of this outreach-research collaboration is the ‘Game designer’ workshops developed by NUSTEM and Professor Rebecca Strachan and her Digital Learning Lab team from the Computing and Information Sciences department. Over several weeks, Professor Strachan worked with primary school children to allow them to design and evaluate their own games. Children taking part in the workshops showed raised levels of knowledge about STEM jobs, and aspirations specifically in the computer science sector.

Imagining the Sun is an ambitious NUSTEM project that links the arts and sciences to highlight the creativity involved in each. The project involved collaboration between a poet, a sound artist, a visual artist, Northumbria’s solar physics research group, and pupils from local primary and secondary schools. Originally an 18-month project, Imagining the Sun has taken a life of its own: the poet, Katrina Porteous, has since run similar workshops for BBC 3’s Free Thinking Festival; the postgraduate student involved has graduated and is now engaging in public outreach programmes; and the solar physics researchers are including outreach activities in their research bids.

Construction company ESH Group’s ‘Get into STEM’ is another example of a project that has evolved from an NUSTEM collaboration into a highly successful initiative that has been used by 70 schools and achieved Responsible Business award in 2017.

NUSTEM’s projects are incredibly important for a region with a high percentage of socioeconomic deprivation. For example, Scientist of the Week is an intervention that uses case studies to highlight the positive attributes of scientific experts, enabling the NUSTEM team to explore how the language used by children to describe scientists changes after they have engaged with these stories.

While most STEM-promoting schemes tend to focus on one stakeholder group such as teachers or a specific age range such as secondary schools, NUSTEM is unique in that it focuses on children and young people from early years to sixth form and beyond, along with their key influencers, and supports them to make informed career choices.  Moreover, NUSTEM’s concepts and materials are being transferred to other regions in the UK and across the globe, with organisations such as the Institute of Physics in England, Scotland and Yorkshire, Science Made Simple in Wales and Ekiti State Ministry in Nigeria expressing an interest.

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