Last week’s A Level results revealed a swing towards so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. One commentator in the Times fretted that this means we’re “becoming a nation of techno nerds”. We’re not.
Firstly, the rise is small. The proportion of all STEM A Level entries went from 25% last year to 33% this year – a rise of only 8%. Given that the future is likely to be filled with more technology, perhaps even an 8% rise is insufficient to prepare us for our future world.
But even if we accept that 8% is a dramatic rise, there are several more serious issues with the assumption – and fear – that we’re becoming a techno nerd nation.
STEM subjects don’t lead only to ‘techno nerd’ careers. We don’t tell kids they can only write novels if they do English literature A Level, and we don’t tell kids that if they take geography A Level, they are destined to make maps for a living. STEM A Levels are a great basis for a wide range of careers and lives. Skills developed through STEM A Levels include communication, data analysis, problem solving and critical thinking – all highly transferable skills, and ones which employers say they need more of according to the CBI.
The real but unstated fear here is that by choosing STEM subjects, young people don’t get the opportunity to study humanities and the arts after age 16. But that is not the fault of the STEM subjects that is the fault of an overtly narrow curriculum in England, Wales & Northern Ireland. Scotland, however, has a wider post-16 curriculum – and has more students studying STEM subjects to age 18. Ironically, I share their concerns that young people are pigeon holed to early. Here at the British Science Association, we entirely agree that students studying STEM subjects should be entitled to a wider curriculum.
Also, why is no-one worried that in this country, arts, languages and humanities students have their access to learning STEM subjects cut off at age 16? Why aren’t arts and humanities students entitled to enjoy, challenge, criticise and perform science – i.e. to experience science in a cultural way – as we all expect to enjoy, challenge, criticise and perform other areas of human endeavour like music, football and politics? As Libby Purves says, by pitting STEM subjects as being in opposition to other subjects, our school systems entrenches the idea that our society has ‘two cultures’ – yet why should any of us have to choose?
I wonder if this fear implies a rather naive attitude to STEM subjects as if they are only worth studying for their usefulness in building the modern world? STEM subjects are rich, philosophical, beautiful and creative subjects in their own right. Perhaps these assumptions are also made about the people who study STEM subjects too? The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “nerd” – an expression which is often used to describe those interested in science – is “a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”. Charming.
We know that many people who don’t work in science feel cut off from it, that ‘science is not for me’. Yet, ignoring science is no longer an option in our modern world – we all have to make science-based decisions about our everyday lives. We are faced with choices on topics as varied as vaccination, mental health, electric cars, diet, child-rearing and household products. For most of us, these decisions will rest on an understanding of scientific method that we learned at school before the age of 17.
As a society, we have some significant science-based decisions ahead of us, such how to get the best out of emerging genome technologies, and where to safely store nuclear waste for hundreds of years. Do we want these decisions to be taken only by people who chose to study STEM A Levels? Is that democratic or wise?
Like the Times writers, I don’t want the UK to become a nation of “techno nerds” either. But I think the way to avoid that is for more of us to study science after age 16, not fewer. We need an education system that enables more of us to build a lifelong relationship with science in which we can enjoy, challenge and take part in science. We need an education system that produces a nation in which science is seen as a fundamental part of culture and society.
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