What’s wrong with Young People in STEM?
I am going to apologise up front for what is going to seem like an unconstructive rant, but bear with me — there is a point to this! Oh and this is quite UK-centric.
In 2012 I started a course at my school which required me to complete a piece of coursework. I decided to create an accurate and low cost technology for remotely monitoring LPG. It turned out that the technology was patent-able and had commercial promise, so I founded Gas-Sense. Throughout the process we found numerous teams across the industries’ largest companies who hadn't been able to do what we managed in a class room. The same year, Nick D’Alosio (who’s 4 days older than me) raised $1M for his startup Summly, which went on to be acquired by Yahoo.
If you start digging you will find many really young people doping extraordinary work. From Sorin Popa who is revolutionising Stents and Kidney Dialysis, to the 16 year old Elliott Young who’s research into the medicinal benefits of Manuka Honey could provide a low cost and transportable treatment for 3rd world countries.
Having come through the youth STEM system in the UK, I was left feeling slightly dissatisfied. Despite the significant influx of investment and attention that has gone to STEM early careers programs, there still doesn’t seem to be any mechanism or body for supporting and recognising young people who are trying to do something of genuine significance.
The need for better role models in engineering and the wider STEM field is well documented and I wrote about my thoughts here. However, there isn’t any mechanism to support original work by young people. On the contrary, schools are now merely “simulating science”, making students follow the steps of various bland and uninspiring experiments. Or better yet, watch a video of someone else doing it.
The Nuffield Foundation do great work, sponsoring students to help out real on real science experiments. There is also the Institute for Research in Schools which gives students the opportunity to get involved in real research efforts at home. Usually these are based on working through open data etc. However, I think both these efforts miss the really exciting part of STEM which is to advance a field you have a genuine interest in, to manage your own project and to become an expert in a field you could have created.
Despite the existing efforts, why has the UK (let alone the whole of Europe) not produced a single finalist for the Google Science Fair. Just a few weeks after the UK came 2nd in the Olympics and Paralympics, despite the strength of our STEM heritage (2nd in world Nobel Prize Rankings). The British academic system has worked for hundreds of years to create many of the worlds major scientific breakthroughs, so why is it failing our young people?
Efforts are needed to extend the systems that graduates and professional academics benefit from to empower young people. As the examples the article starts with show, we are capable of doing it, so how can we get more people to make the jump.