The art of STEM: taking stock of progress as the Scottish Government publishes its first annual report

Written by Peter Urpeth on 4 April 2019 in Inside Politics

Eighteen months on from the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy, Holyrood’s STEM conference discussed progress in key areas

Richard Lochhead - Image credit: Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

The Scottish Government’s strategy to boost uptake and attainment in the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is 18 months old and, against the backdrop of a raft of new initiatives in education, training and industry, the fourth iteration of Holyrood’s STEM Scotland conference focused on strategies to address key issues for the sector – overcoming gender inequalities and boosting links with industry.

For Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, the conference was a chance to take stock of the government’s STEM strategy at the time of its first annual report on progress and, whilst acknowledging that there is “no quick-fix” to the issue of gender inequality, to emphasise “some of the great STEM learning that takes places in schools, colleges and universities”.

Lochhead said the first annual report on the strategy had shown there was “good progress” so far.

“Our actions have included awarding bursaries to encourage STEM career changers into teaching; establishing Maths Week Scotland as an annual event to raise the profile of numeracy and maths; providing new guidance to teachers to help tackle gender stereotyping that is a root cause of gender imbalance in STEM; launching a Professional Learning in STEM grants programme to provide STEM-related programmes and resources; initiating a new Young STEM Leaders mentoring programme; supporting colleges to develop and promote the aims of the STEM strategy in the regions; and providing a network of specialist STEM advisers, working across the country, to take forward our STEM agenda,” he said.

Latest figures available for employment in the STEM sector show that in 2017, STEM-related activity in the economy (excluding that which is health related) accounted for 23.5 per cent of all employment in Scotland.

With health-related activity included, the figure rises to 30.7 per cent of employment.

But for Professor Caroline Wilkinson, whose pioneering work in facial recognition technology combines fine art and science, which has seen her work on such high-profile cases as reconstructing the face of Richard III and the formation of the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University, the future lies not just in STEM, but in STEAM, with the arts added to the core STEM subjects.

Wilkinson highlighted the impact an “art-science fusion” approach in education can have on the attainments of scientists, with examples of the achievements of 17 Nobel Laureate winners whose work did not solely originate in science, and the need to debunk ‘the myth’ of the left/right brain split in terms of logic and creativity.

Wilkinson asserted that this conception was to blame for “the split in education” into “siloes” of science, maths and the arts, with only eight per cent of pupils in UK schools studying art and science subjects after the age of 14.

This is not, according to Wilkinson, a reflection of a lack of interest but rather, the narrow choice pupils have in terms of subject choices.

In discussions across the conference’s break out sessions, the issues schools and industry face in forming and sustaining partnership working were highlighted, with contributors from the floor urging an approach that is not based on single events, but on planned and sustained engagement, with increased communication between schools and local industry.

Concerns that STEM engagement in primary schools was too often the result of the presence of an individual interested teacher were also voiced, and the need to address issues of gender stereotyping at an early stage in the education system, as a means of addressing later subject choices and specialisation was also widely discussed and acknowledged.

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