Q&A: What's happening in STEM education

At MATLAB Expo 2015, we got three key players in STEM outreach to schools together to find out what they’re doing and how well it’s working - Chris Hayhurst from MathWorks, Andy Donnelly from the Cambridge Science Centre and Toby Parkin from the London Science Museum

How are you working together, and what are you aiming for?

CH: We’ve always worked with universities. With our social mission programme, though, we want to give back to the whole community through primary and secondary schools. We need to get to young people and inspire them with science, technology, engineering and maths if we as a country are going to be successful in the future. We need to partner with organisations who know how to reach those young people, which is where working with people like the Cambridge Science Centre and the Science Museum comes in.

AD: We’re small, compared to big organisations like the Science Museum, but we’re nimble. We can replicate ourselves practically anywhere. We can take a venue and turn it into a science centre with fifty or sixty exhibits in a couple of hours. We get the kids in, we get the parents in, we get teachers in. We’ve been going a couple of years, and have engaged maybe 50,000 people.

TP: For us, the numbers are bigger - we are the most visited institution in the country for schools and part of a group of museums getting to 100,000 students on outreach around the country. We use a variety of different fun ways to engage people in STEM, everything from workshops, showing objects from the museum, interactive galleries. We’ve been doing it for a long time!

CH: On the practical side we provide funding for specific exhibits and to sustain the organisations. We’re hands-on as well, providing skills and expertise while learning how school children learn. It’s a symbiotic thing, we contribute to and gain from these organisations.

Who are you aiming at and how are you reaching them?

AD: Seven to eleven year-olds, then eleven to fourteen. That covers the transition age where you lose a lot of STEM engagement - especially with girls.

TP: Our main focus with interactive exhibits is around ages 7-14. We did an exhibition last year on the problem solving side of engineering. It was called Rugged Rovers and got the children designing a Mars rover as a computer game. It’s hard to define what an engineer is, especially in the UK. With Rugged Rovers, there was no problem. You’re doing it.

AD: The key to engage primary school children is to highlight real STEM role models. They don’t have to be big personalities. There’s a place for Brian Cox, but friends and family members are more important. If your parents aren’t into it, it’s very unlikely you will be. What happens outside school is hugely important, and we’re only just waking up to that.

CH: One of the things we find most exciting is many of these projects and initiatives have a real goal our software can address. You start with fun tools at primary school, use them increasingly seriously through secondary and university levels, and find out that they’re what you’ll use in industry.

Is the UK’s education system doing enough to encourage STEM? How is it using modelling and interaction?

AD: There’s a lack of opportunity for hands-on exploration, which is expensive and hard to measure in ways that help schools when they’re assessed. Science centres can provide these hands-on activities to schools and communities, and teachers are crying out for it. Once kids have had fun with making models work, they’re more open to the curriculum.

TP: That’s a really good point. We’ve always found models work very well. We are planning a gravity simulation that spins balls around curved materials. You see it’s a model, but it represents how the whole universe works. That’s a very powerful realisation, and you can get that from computer modelling too.

CH: The more progressive institutions are already bringing our software into their teaching. Every MathWorks office worldwide has someone dedicated to help create curriculum material that makes these advanced tools useful to secondary school and university students. We like getting engineers out into schools and universities too, it's really useful for them to see how the software gets to be used, and it’s a great opportunity for students to meet a software engineer and understand what they do.

Is there a link between what you do and encouraging diversity?

AD: Role models are really important, and we can be a focus for that. We show a diverse range of people working in STEM, not just at the top but in the middle and those just starting out, and that makes it attainable. You need to know the pay’s good, it can take you around the world, and it’s important to show that to every school child.

TP: For us it’s about starting early. By university, it’s too late to encourage diversity. We’ve found that at seven years old, there’s no difference. Anyone can do anything. By the time you get to 11, all the stereotypes have kicked in and what you can do is very much about what others think of you.

So if we can inspire people at seven, provide lots of follow-up on a continuing basis with teacher involvement, then we have a chance of changing that culture and making it completely open to everybody. It’s not just about putting people into STEM careers, it’s about creating a science-literate society, and that means involving everyone.