Prof Brian Cox: This is how we inspire kids to get into science and tech

The scientist and TV personality discusses the problem with getting kids interested in STEM careers

Professor Brian Cox OBE has been a familiar face on our TV screens for nearly a decade. His down-to-earth soft Oldham accent and his adeptness at explaining complex scientific theories has stopped many of us switching channels when Horizon came on.

He still teaches first years at the University of Manchester but since 2012 has taken part in a programme of TED-style talks aimed at getting inner city teenagers to take up careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Kids from more than 30 schools in Tower Hamlets and Newham took part in the third annual St Paul’s Way Trust Science Summer School last week.

We chatted to the prof and asked him what needs to be done to get more young people passionate about STEM subjects and improve diversity of those industries.

Q. Why did you take part in the summer school?

I think science and engineering are inspirational and obviously we need more STEM graduates in the economy. Around 1.86 million jobs just in engineering need to be filled by 2020 so we are talking about millions of people that we need STEM trained. So I long felt that science and engineering as a demand in the economy has not been linked up as well as it could be with education. The very simple idea is that we would get academics from as many universities as we could to come and give a almost TED-style talk to the students across a breadth of subjects so they could see what’s happening in scientific research. Also, what’s even more important is for them to have personal contact with academics and to see that a career in research could be for them.

Q. What are the challenges in getting young people interested in STEM careers?

Students from backgrounds where their parents haven’t gone to university and no-one in their street or community goes to university or through higher education, it’s much more difficult for them to even think they could possibly do it. This is clear, and we see this at the University of Manchester.

Q. Why is it important to encourage school kids to stay interested in science?

There’s a big onus on schools to capitalise on the interest [in science]. I’ve always thought it doesn’t matter to me if these kids go on to study STEM subjects, but it’s about being interested in learning and excited about knowledge. What St Paul’s Way [the school running the science summer schools] has found is that by focusing on science across the board, academic achievement and results have gone up. That’s not a coincidence. It’s associating learning and knowledge with enjoyment and wonder essentially, which is what we’re doing at the summer school.

Q. Only 13% of workers in STEM industries are women. What’s the problem with getting girls into those subjects?

People do research into this and there are interesting findings. One is that you don’t have that problem in all-girl classes - now whether that’s a thing to advocate or not, I’m not sure - but it does tell you something, which is there must be some kind of peer pressure [stopping girls going into STEM].

There’s also [a lack of] role models, definitely. That’s one of the things at the summer school actually - there are male and female academics from all backgrounds which is important, so you can see science as not something that’s done by old men.

We do know from research if you say to very young kids ‘draw a scientist’, they’ll draw Einstein, but old Einstein, and then when you tell them that the Einstein that did all the research was young Einstein, who is quite an interesting guy in his own right, that’s important.

Q. What does it take to inspire students?

Students are very bright and they’re very quick. A 10-minute talk is all that it takes for one person to think “I can be like you” and “I’d like to do that”, and the link is made then.

I teach in a university, and what I see first hand is that post-A Level students are getting better now. I think there’s a consensus anecdotally that they seem to be getting better and even when they come in with certain deficiencies, they can be fixed easily because they’re clever, bright and motivated.

Q. Is the Department of Education making the right decisions for young people?

I’m not sure [about changes made to school syllabuses by the Department of Education] but what I would say is my personal view is that too much testing is a bad thing if you remove the joy of learning and the exploration of knowledge. If you don’t associate school with that, then I think there’s a problem. So if I thought the testing regime were doing that, then I’d think there was a problem with it.

If testing’s being used to measure the success of a school then it’s kind of problematic, it seems to me. Because you’re putting students through a process where they have to focus on doing tests, and if the point of that test is to measure the success of the school then there’s a better way of doing that. I don’t think students should be measurement probes.

Q. Does university prepare young people properly for entering the workplace?

I think we do. Again, there are debates around that and universities have tried to integrate more with industry. That’s one of the exciting things that’s happening round here in Canary Wharf - you see there’s an attempt to join it up, and I strongly support that.

We want Britain to to be the best place in the world to do science and to do engineering and knowledge-based industries in particular. And so it’s quite obvious to me that we need to make strong links to industry.

What can businesses do to help?

They can go into schools. Even if it’s just a few of your researchers, technology translation people, whatever it is, if you just put one person into a school visit who looks like the kind of person that the students want to be, I think that’s extremely important actually.

On the flip side, for big businesses, the best subsidy the government can give them as a country, is an educated workforce. So I suppose for businesses that are based in Britain and care about Britain, there’s a responsibility to inspire people - and you don’t have to inspire very many to fill that skills gap, actually. Inspiring students isn’t difficult, they want to be inspired, but we also need the support so that when they want to be educated we educate them to the standard we require, and that’s also a political challenge.

Thanks Brian!

What do you think about the challenges of getting kids into STEM subjects? Tweet me your thoughts @robynvinter

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