Careers in science and technology

 

Sir, – I have to say that the recent blitz of “Stem” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) articles in your newspaper (June 20th) gave me pause for thought. Amidst all the hype about successful scientists and high-tech companies, I found myself returning to one of the Higher Education Authority’s reports on what graduates actually do when they leave college. Its 2014 report showed that 42 per cent of maths and science graduates, 66 per cent of ICT (information and communication technology) graduates and 57 per cent of engineering graduates were in employment nine months after graduation. In the case of maths and science, a huge 41 per cent of graduates had signed up for postgraduate education. Surprisingly, 13 per cent of ICT graduates were seeking employment.

This is not to be negative or to suggest that school-leavers should not aspire to be scientists or engineers or computer scientists. It is more to do with the fact that we have a moral duty to be completely transparent about what it takes to forge a career in these disciplines. Furthermore, we really need to rethink our use of the Stem acronym. Stem is a term that originated in the US in the 1980s, and while there are educators who (mistakenly) see Stem as some sort of super-discipline defined by a set of so-called generic skills such as problem-solving, inquiry and creativity, the reality is that Stem means very little to the average school-leaver. Students might express an interest in biology or chemistry or physics or even coding but I have never in my long career heard a student express a desire to study Stem.

Although as educators we like to teach from the general to the specific, students like things done the other way around. The reason for this is that we are experts and they are novices, and experts and novices think differently. So if we want to encourage students to pursue careers in science and engineering, we need to get specific and answer questions like “What will I actually be if I have a degree in biology?”, or “What exactly is chemical engineering?”, or “What would my day be like if I were a coder? Would it involve looking at screens all day?”.

We need to put ourselves in the mind of the school-leaver and prepare answers to questions that they are likely to ask. In other words we need to show a little bit of empathy. – Yours, etc,

Dr GREG FOLEY,

Senior Lecturer

in Bioprocess Engineering,

School of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.