Why efforts to get kids into STEM could be making education inequality worse

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Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is a priority for governments around the world. For example, the UK’s current commitment to increasing investment in research and development to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027 means that we need to train 260,000 more researchers to carry out this work.

There has long been a perceived shortage in such skills and knowledge. And this drives policy measures in education, skills and immigration to address the situation.

In their STEM strategies, governments are increasingly focused on addressing the large disparities in participation between different social groups. For example, in the UK only 15 percent of scientists come from working-class households, just 7 percent of patents are filed by women, and among start-up founders men outnumber women four to one. The problem is often discussed in terms of a “leaky pipeline”, the idea that potential STEM professionals are lost at particular points along defined pathways.

Plugging the leak

This spurs governments around the world to target activities at young people, aiming to foster STEM engagement from an early stage. “STEM inspiration” is one way to do this, by offering STEM-related activities to school-age children beyond usual subject teaching. This could take place within schools, or informally through visits to museums or in the home or community.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) funds STEM inspiration in the UK, spending £103m annually on programs delivered through bodies such as STEM Learning Ltd, the Wellcome Trust, and the British Science Association.

But is all this activity having the desired effect or could it even be doing more harm than good?

First, we know that there is just not enough provision. For example, our mapping of invention programs found that they reach just 1.5 percent of the UK school population annually. Overall, participation in STEM careers activities is low, with less than 30 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds reporting having taken part in 2017. In light of evidence that it takes around four role model encounters for effects to be seen on students’ aspirations, it is likely a very small and select group that receives effective provision.

Also, provision continues to exclude students and communities who need it most – those who are traditionally less likely to take part in STEM. UCL’s ASPIRES team has found that while significant proportions of the school population report never having had access to STEM inspiration, this is particularly the case among disadvantaged groups.

Competition equals inspiration?

Our own research looked in more detail at one particular type of STEM inspiration activity: competitions. STEM competitions are an increasingly popular model in the UK and internationally, challenging students individually or in teams to apply STEM skills and knowledge to hands-on projects.

There are around 50 STEM and innovation competitions in the UK. Government departments run their own – for example, the Youth Industrial Strategy Competition by BEIS, and CyberFirst by the National Cyber Security Centre. The model is also very popular in the US and China, and reflects a strategic focus on STEM for economic growth. However, in some countries, such as Finland, competitions are treated more as opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge than promote individual success; and in Singapore, there is a noticeable emphasis on creativity in STEM.