How Do We Inspire the Next Generation of Scientists? It’s Time STEM Had a Rebrand

What springs to mind when you think of the word STEM? For some it might not mean anything at all. For others it might conjure up images of lab coats or chemistry lessons. But does it make you think of science and technology?

Right now, a lack of skills is making it hard to fill as many as 43 per cent of STEM professional vacancies.

The word STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, is a catch-all term used by those in the industry and media. But at a time when computer technology intertwines with most aspects of our lives, and with science such a broad area, the term can lead to inaccurate stereotypes of STEM careers. What’s more, it may be putting off future generations as students struggle to interpret what a career in STEM could truly entail. Right now, a lack of skills is making it hard to fill as many as 43 per cent of STEM professional vacancies.

We need to stop packaging up these subjects into an elusive acronym. The careers are diverse, exciting and rewarding and it’s time STEM rebranded to reflect this.

How do we rebrand STEM?

In my role as a surgeon I’ve made it my mission to break down the barriers to healthcare education and open it up to anyone in the world. I’ve done this through leading edge immersive technology. I was the first person in the world to perform surgery recorded in 360 VR and broadcast it across the globe. I use Facebook Live to perform training sessions with people in remote islands in the Pacific while I’m based on the other side of the world. More recently, I’ve found Snapchat Spectacles to be particularly useful in showcasing the intricacies of surgery to young people. New technology like this is revolutionising the way we can show the world about what it really means to work in healthcare. We need to be doing this across the board.

If we want to maintain these high standards and fill the jobs of the future, we need to inspire the next generation.

The UK has a longstanding record of outstanding achievements in science and technology and we continue to lead the world in many areas such as the aerospace and automotive sectors. The life sciences sector generates £64 billion of turnover, and employs more than 233,000 scientists and staff.

If we want to maintain these high standards and fill the jobs of the future, we need to inspire the next generation. And SnapChat Spectacles are just the start.

What elements need a rebrand?

There are four key areas we need to focus on if we’re going to broaden the scope of what ‘STEM’ entails.

  1. The way we talk about STEM

The problem starts in the classroom. There is a big communication gap between the amazing jobs on offer and what you study in school. This gap needs to be bridged. And it needs to be bridged with real life examples.

Math doesn’t have to mean becoming an accountant. It could mean you’re involved in setting doses for life saving medicines. Studying IT could mean you’ll develop the next big social media app. Science doesn’t mean working in a lab and pipetting away all day. When you’re sat in a classroom learning the periodic table, it’s very difficult to make those connections. Science and technology jobs are present in our day-to-day lives more than we might expect. It’s vital we show school children and young adults the breadth of interesting and modern roles that these subjects could lead to.

  1. Everyone has a role to play

It’s not just about teachers. Everyone has a role to play, from the media and high profile social media influencers to brands and commercial organisations. There is mixed opinion on campaigns by big brands such as Lego, which recently launched its ‘Women of Nasa’ range of characters, including female scientists, engineers and astronauts. However, this kind of initiative is a step in the right direction to make STEM more inclusive and aspirational, and shows how everyone can get behind the cause.

  1. The platforms used to tell the story

You only have a few seconds to grab the attention of Generation Z, the age group that will be the doctors and inventors of the future. 78 per cent use Snapchat and 76 per cent are on Instagram. Meanwhile, they spend up to four hours a day on messaging apps. We need to interact with young generations in a way that resonates with them; on the channels and through the technology they enjoy using.

I recently attended GenerationeXt, an event for schoolchildren run by biotech company Roche, where we used VR headsets to show schoolchildren what it’s really like to be in different roles in science. It was attended by the Mandeville sisters – Generation Z influencers – who used their social media channels to spread the word to a wider audience in a way that resonated with them. The comments on their Instagram stories were so encouraging to see; young people, particularly girls genuinely excited about science.

  1. Immerse young people in the opportunities available to them

There’s no point just telling young people about the varied careers in science, technology, engineering and math. We need to show them and offer them real life experiences.

This is the only way to shrug off the stuffy image of stereotypical scientists wearing lab coats. We need to replace this image with something more relevant and on brand.

Initiatives led by organisations such as the STEMettes, which is empowering women to undertake a career in the sector and events like The Big Bang Science Fair and the music festival Bluedot, which combines the worlds of physics and music, are putting young people right in the heart of the action and bringing it to life. It gets them talking about it, sharing it with their friends and asking questions.

The future of careers in science

This is the start of bridging the gap between the perceptions and the reality, and showing schoolchildren that studying subjects like math, IT and chemistry can lead to a whole world of exciting, rewarding and world-changing opportunities.

Rebranding the perceptions of these subjects isn’t going to be easy. A good start for me would be to ban the word STEM. Instead, let’s just start talking about all the fascinating aspects that make up this term in a language that young students today can relate to. This is critical if we’re going to inspire the next generation. I call on teachers, parents, the Government, businesses, the media and everyone in between to help us in this vital cause.

Professor Shafi Ahmed recently attended Roche’s GenerationeXt event 2017; an event that aims to inspire kids aged 16-18 about careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Shafi Ahmed

Cancer Surgeon at The Royal London Hospital and Founder of Medical Realities
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