Can parents help ‘nudge’ students into choosing STEM A-levels?

When young people are asked who has provided them with careers advice and guidance, the most common answer is ‘parents and family’, followed by ‘teachers’.

The Behavioural Insights Team (sometimes known as the Nudge Unit) apply behavioural economics and psychology to understand the choices that people make, and help people make sensible choices.  They often run research trials which test out different interventions to see which is the most effective. They have worked with the Department for Education, National Health Service, with HMRC, with local councils, police forces, and many other organisations.

Now the team are looking to see if parents and teachers can help encourage their girls to choose STEM A-levels, and need secondary schools to sign up to be part of the trial.

The two interventions include:

  • Sharing a website with parents that provides information about the usefulness of STEM and guidance on how to talk to their child about A-level subject choices
  • Short classroom based activities targeted at students to overcome the perception that STEM is not ‘for them’

Both of these interventions link closely to what NUSTEM is doing in the North East, so we’re really interested to see the results of the trial.

If your school would like to get involved, there are more details in this pdf, and you can contact Kathryn or Jessica at the Behavioural Insights Team.

Kathryn.Atherton@bi.team  or Jessica.Hunt@bi.team

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week

This week is Tomorrow’s Engineers Week. Back for its sixth year, the themed week is led by Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and involving basically everyone else who’s big in engineering in the country. At NUSTEM we have a packed week of engineering-themed support with our partner schools, including:

  • Team newcomer Mel is out delivering her Systems Engineering workshop with several of our partner primary school. Expect mechanical puzzle-solving and plenty of chasing after marbles.
  • Secondary specialist Antonio is delivering an engineering-themed assembly in several of our partner secondary schools.
  • Our resident digital maker Jonathan is running a Maker Club, and will be at Virgin Money’s STEMtastic day on Thursday – both themed around digital networks, Internet of Things, and … musical robots. Because that’s the way we (rock and) roll.
  • Our sixth-form lecture this Thursday is on the mathematics of fractal geometry: book your place at that link!

If we can’t get to you this week (hey, even we have limits… like, ‘being in two places at once’, we’ve not worked out how to crack that one yet), or the evening lecture doesn’t suit, there are still opportunities to get involved. On Wednesday the central organisation is hosting a live-streamed Big Assembly, with features from a ‘Dynamic Dozen’ of young professional engineers. Or – parents and teachers – explore research published this week which indicates the parents’ guidance to their children tends to emphasise careers which they think will make a positive difference to the world, and that ‘engineering’ is high on that list. Or explore the range of careers ideas and information available at the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week forms part of the Year of Engineering, where you’ll find even more engineering-themed inspiration, background materials, can careers information.

Astronauts, sports scholarships, the web, deforestation, and the power of unexpected connections

Here’s a delightful little story from web developer Sarah Mei, posted on Twitter. It starts out being about American university sports scholarships, but heads off in directions you’re really not going to expect.

We all assume, when we’re in school, that we’re going to have ‘a career’, that it’s going to make sense, and that we can map out roughly how it’s going to go. For some people that’s absolutely true, but for many (most?) of us, our lives take twists and turns we’d never have predicted. Some of us rather like it that way, even if we don’t have stories quite as good as this.

Tip of the hat to Elin Roberts for the link.

The Amazingly Enormous STEM Careers Poster

Here’s a neat resource from the terrific folks behind the globe-spanning celebration of the achievements of women in STEM which is Ada Lovelace Day: the aptly-named “Amazingly Enormous STEM Careers Poster”.

We’ve used it a couple of times and can recommend it. The only thing we’d say is that – as with all these sorts of resources – it can be slightly tricky to convey the idea that the list of jobs isn’t exhaustive. That’s particularly challenging when there’s little apparent connection between the job and the degree course… which is rather the point of this particular poster.

So: this is a really nicely-prepared resource, which benefits from a little thought and care about how you introduce or use it.

It’s available for download and self-printing, or you can buy physical posters, both via the links.

Future Career Capital

When you were young, did you want to be a vet, a doctor, a teacher? A sports person, nurse, actor, singer, gamer, astronaut, zoo keeper, police officer?

That list doesn’t change much over the years. Jobs like ‘professional gamer’ are new, but the list of jobs most ten year-olds today are aware of is mostly similar to the list you could have made ten years ago, or even twenty.

Not many children would proclaim that they want to be a thermodynamics engineer, a solar physicist, or an earth observation programmer. Those are all exciting career routes, but most of us have no idea they even exist, and even if we do we’re maybe not entirely sure what all the words mean. So it’s no surprise that young people are more aware of and more comfortable talking about the list of familiar jobs we started with. We know what firefighters do, we don’t have to look it up before we can start trying on that role in the playground.

Research suggests that we start thinking about future careers from a very young age. That’s no great surprise, but perhaps unexpectedly, research also suggests that we start making decisions early too. Not “I’m going to be a quantum-computational geneticist” decisions, but more fluid decisions about the types of careers we feel we can and can’t have. Understandably, children in families where a parent or close relative is a scientist or engineer tend to have a greater awareness of jobs within the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sector. That awareness can help them have a broader view of what’s possible for them, in turn helping them avoid making early choices which limit possibilities later.

The term used to describe this is ‘science capital’. The ASPIRES research project [2013] discusses this at length – see our primer on science capital for more background, and we’ve a page about the ASPIRES project.

But, if you are from a family of non-scientists, where do you get your science career, advice and information from? Over the past couple of weeks I have led CPD events with a focus on STEM, and on how we can develop career links within primary school lessons. A quote I like you to use is:

“You only know what you know!”

It’s not about telling children what they are going to do, and it’s not about them making decisions. Rather, it’s about equipping them with information so they are aware of the many opportunities available to them and the skills and qualifications they’d need to get there.

By providing examples of careers when studying topics like the human body, plants, space or electricity, we can show children that there are careers linked to those topics. That may ignite and inspire further interest, and a potential idea about a new, future career they wish to explore. You could then team curriculum links with employer encounters so children meet people working in STEM; showcase local employers and places they could work; explore and visit further and higher education establishments to raise aspirations; or encourage family involvement by offering ideas on ways to extend learning at home.

Ideas like these very quickly develop into a primary careers programme. They allows us to reinforce positive messages like “Girls and Boys can both have careers in STEM, and it’s not just for the super bright children.” Careers in science and engineering can be for everyone – the curious, the creative, the makers, triers and doers. They can be for anyone who wishes to make an impact on the world around us, and to help solve some of the biggest problems we face.

These are the positive and influential messages which underpin all of the above and contextualise and make meaning of the curriculum.

It’s easy to think of ‘careers’ as meaning ‘jobs,’ but that’s too narrow a concept, particularly at primary. Perhaps we should coin a new term: ‘future career capital’. We could use that to consider how we can, through an early years/primary careers programme, support children and families to aspire, achieve and succeed, rather than waiting to start these discussions in year 8.

STEM Careers: QuantuMDx handheld diagnosis devices

quantumdx logo

QuantuMDx logo

Recently I visited a fantastic and exciting company: QuantuMDx. Based in Newcastle, the diverse team splits their time between the office and lab, exercising a range of STEM and business skills. They’re developing a range of low cost, handheld medical devices which will diagnose a range of diseases in minutes – the world’s first handheld DNA laboratory.

The company’s technology allows them to extract DNA from a blood sample and, using custom-developed nanotech, test it against markers for specific diseases within about fifteen minutes. The devices are speedy, accurate, and in principle can test for hospital-acquired infections, tuberculosis, HIV, cancers, and more. The team have initially set their sights on malaria treatment: quick diagnosis in the field will allow health professionals to prescribe effective treatments, improving outcomes for patients.

There are public health benefits too. Imagine a cheap, quick, readily-available device which can accurately test for a disease like Ebola. Rather than samples being returned to a lab and tested over a period of days, those devices could be deployed in the field. Integrate them with mobile phone technology, and location information could be included in the test results and collected in minutes. The implications for how we observe, understand, map and ultimately control the spread of outbreaks of contagious diseases are immense, and very much the sort of direction QuantuMDx are heading.

quantumdx Q-POC handheld diagnosis device

QuantuMDx Q-POC handheld diagnosis device

The team at QuantuMDx are made up of Physicists, Nano-Scientists, Chemists, Electrical Engineers, Biomedical Engineers as well as as a team of business professionals. Lucy Harvey, Marketing and Business Development Officer, has a background in science, having studied a BSc in Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Stirling. Lucy considers this a key strength to her role as she understands the science behind the product, and can promote what QuantuMDx is developing to the wider community and potential stakeholders.

It’s no exaggeration to say that QuantuMDx are setting out to change the world, and for many of their future patients they most certainly will. By studying STEM subjects you too could work on unique and life-changing technologies, with innovative and multi-skilled teams, right here in the North East! For more information about QuantuMDx visit their website, read their blog, and watch the film we’ve embedded below of molecular biologist Jonathan O’Halloran speaking at the WIRED Health event last year.

Teachers: QuantuMDx is fantastic company to showcase within science lessons, because of the diversity of the team. Perhaps your class could be the ‘Research & Development’ team tasked with thinking of new ways that the device could be developed and utilised even further? Please use the comments box below to message us your ideas and innovations.

Booklet: What is So Exciting About Physics?

Question: What do the following people have in common?

Answer: They all studied a physics degree, and are all in a new booklet called What is so Exciting About Physics?

Put together by a group of students at Cambridge University called Cavendish Inspiring Women, the booklet introduces a range of people discussing what they find exciting about Physics, and where it has taken them in their careers so far. The booklet’s a quick, punchy read that introduces a diverse range of role models, several of whom are working outside what you might think of as traditional physics-related jobs. Teachers, it’s well worth passing this one on to your students.

You can download a copy of the booklet from the CiW website, and follow the project via Twitter.

Jobs with the European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA) describes itself as:

Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

The organisation brings together 22 member states and wider partners from Bulgaria to the Ukraine, sharing financial resources and intellectual skills, allowing ESA to achieve far more than if one single European country were to go it alone. It’s a shining example of the benefits of collaboration.

The main objectives of ESA’s programmes are to find out more about Earth, its immediate space environment, our Solar System and the Universe. It also works to develop satellite-based technologies and services, to promote European industries, and to collaborate with space organisations outside Europe.

ESA has sites in Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and in the United Kingdom.

Could you have a future space career?

Yes of course! If you have a passion for space, build the skills and knowledge that are required and you’ll be in with a shot.

For more information and to see the types of jobs available visit the ESA Careers website. There, you’ll find information on graduate traineeship schemes, work placements for undergraduate or masters students, case studies, videos and current opportunities, so you can get a flavour of the types of jobs and more importantly the skills and qualifications you would need.

Find out More: Subscribe to the ‘vacancies announcement‘ list and receive weekly updates about job opportunities.

Teachers: share with your pupils the types of jobs available within the Space sector. You could even inspire students (of all ages) by displaying job opportunities on the board as they enter the classroom. For example, very recently ESA have recruited for:

  • Thermal Engineer
  • Medical Officer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Earth Observations Project Specialist
  • Contracts Officer
  • Component Engineer
  • Microelectronics Engineer

Making Apple Watch

As a counterpoint to Monday’s post about building giant ships by throwing huge slabs of steel around, here’s the opposite end of the metalworking spectrum: the precision metallurgy and machining that goes into making Apple Watch.

Product Designer Greg Koenig has a terrific blog post which dissects what little Apple has said about the Watch with a fanatical eye. All he has to go on is this set of films about the ‘craftsmanship’ involved:

From there, Koenig explores work hardening; gold metal matrix composites; ultrasonic imperfection testing of the sort usually applied only to medical implants or aircraft engine components; the order of polishing vs. machining operations; stainless steel alloys and nickel allergies; forging and the effect of grain structure; datum detection and coordinate measuring; …

I could go on. Koenig does, and it’s fascinating. Turns out, the steel and aluminium watches are made using quite different processes (forging and extrusion, respectively), and there’s something extraordinary going on with the aluminium version:

Apple is doing something utterly unique […] using a laser to clean up any burrs or finishing defects from machining. You can see the laser quickly outline the lip of an inside pocket, and come in for a more intense second pass on the floor of that pocket. […] this is an astonishingly brilliant trick they cooked up.

Materials Science and Metallurgy are fields that are easy to overlook, but so many of the devices and technologies of our lives depend on continued innovation at all levels of the supply and manufacturing chain. Mass production has been one of the key technologies of the last hundred years or so, but there are still new advances to be found.

Do read the rest of Koenig’s post. If you find it as utterly compelling as I do, bear in mind that you’d get to work with this stuff most likely from studying physics, chemistry and design technology in school. You’d go on to fields like physics, chemistry, materials science, product design, or mechanical engineering, then specialise into surface physics, metallurgy, production engineering, quality control, and so on.