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STEM or STEAM, or is it just about skills?

Nina Hinton- Development and Marketing Manager

I was fortunate, yesterday evening (09/11/15), to attend the North West Business Leader’s Forum, which, this month, was named ‘Building Up a Head of STEAM’. The focus of the debate was STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) vs. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, maths).

The evening was incredibly interesting and thought provoking, and I left with many questions answered and many more to ponder on the wet and windy drive home on the M56.

The panel was made up of Chris Doherty, Manchester Science Partnerships; Mike Byrne, Accenture; Esme Ward, Manchester Museum; David Heke, ‘chart’ and Suzanne Jones, International Innoation Unit, Department for Business, Innovations and Skills. The Chief Executive of NWBLT, Geoffrey Piper, chaired the evening and skillyfully controlled the debate.

The debate began with the perhaps expected narrative; skills shortages in UK, how education needs to address the skills shortages and the growing STEM industry. All remain valid concerns for education providers and awarding bodies alike but what made the evening particularly interesting, however, was the suggestion that art subjects were also essential for filling the STEM sized gap in our labour market.

Several ideas stood out for me:

Firstly, alongside STEM technical skills and subjects knowledge, there continues to be a gap in the ‘soft skills’ of our young people. Mike Byrne summarised this neatly as breadth vs. depth. There can often be a focus on encouraging in-depth specialist knowledge to fulfil STEM related roles in the workplace. This leaves you with a workforce with a lot of knowledge but one that may struggle with your basic employability skills; teamwork, communication, problem solving and prioritising. He also suggested this can leave people with a difficult choice when training for a role. Do I want to be a specialist or do I want to be a leader? Again, specialists require in-depth knowledge and technical ability. Leaders, however, require good communication, resilience and creativity alongside over-arching knowledge. It was suggested that those who have studied art, linguistics or humanities often do better at interviews because they can communicate better. The question is, can the education and training we provide for young people now provide the skills, knowledge and competencies to encourage both specialism and leadership? It was felt, across the panel, that art subjects can play a role in harnessing and developing the skills and qualities needed for our future leaders.

Employers continue to tell us they are looking for ‘employability’ skills, but is it really a choice between knowledge and soft skills? Do employability skills really need to be in contrast to the traditional ‘STEM’ skills? Instead of breadth vs. depth, can we encourage young people to strive for breadth and depth. Instead of specialist vs. leadership, can we not have specialist leaders? Instead of art vs. science, why can’t we have art and science? Vocational and academic; creative and technical; accurate and creative – could a curriculum of art and science help move us away from a false dichotomy’s we have created and instead develop a well-rounded, passionate, resilient and highly skilled workforce? Is it a binary choice?

Another interesting idea was that of the role of language and communication in employment. In any role, communication is essential and with an ever-developing digital world, do we need to change the way we think about language? Suzanne Jones highlighted the English language is one of the best products we have in the global market. However, young people can often come under criticism for their misuse of it. Education providers are easily criticised for not educating young people to a high enough standard of English language, with spelling, grammar and syntax coming under fire. Having studied Latin and Ancient Greek, I have a love for verb conjugations and a particular fondness for the etymology of the English language. However, for me, what is particularly inspiring about our language is the way it continues to evolve. Far from a fixed set of rules, we encourage creativity within our language. We embrace new words as quickly as they can be created by our youths, and the digital world encourages this creativity. Language is, at its core, a means of communicating. Instead of discouraging our future labour market by criticising wrong spellings or misused words, we should be harnessing that creativity and encouraging our young people to push the boundaries of communication, using all the media at their fingertips. Digital media is swiftly being accepted as an art form, just as digital technology continues to influence and shape our labour market. Could embedding digital art throughout curriculum support the communication skills of our young people? Could digital art support digital science?

When asked, if they had a magic wand what they would wave it over to fix the skills shortage, the panel acknowledged that a partnership approach was needed. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was agreed that the Education sector (schools and further education) were on the front line of the STEM agenda. Open Awards’ recent Business Skills event in October heard guest speakers talk about the need for ‘soft’ skills and entrepreneurship. Gary Millar, former Lord Mayor of Liverpool, highlighted the need for the right leadership and mentorship for young people stating that ‘children need to be inspired from day one’. Educators are in the best position to provide this inspiration. What was raised at the NWBLT debate was the idea that perhaps we are asking our teachers and educators to fulfil an impossible role. As technology and science continues to develop incredibly rapidly, how can we expect teachers to keep up with the developments? How can we expect them to know what to teach? Initial teacher training is, of course, essential in producing good teachers. However, do we need to be looking at ongoing training for educators? Should STEM industries be playing a larger part in feeding information into the education sector in an easily digestible format so they, in turn, can educate our young people and provide the passion and enthusiasm for the sector that is needed to inspire? We ask our educators to have a breadth of knowledge, to offer a rounded and full curriculum. Who’s role, therefore, is it to provide that depth?

The final thought of the evening was about looking into the future. What are the roles that don’t exist yet? What are the skills that our primary school children will need in 20 years to gain and sustain employment?

Several suggestions were given on how to go about answering these questions – focus on skills rather than knowledge as technical knowledge can be taught in a work setting; research projects; looking to the global market. As one of the panel highlighted, if anyone was able to see into the future and predict what the future trends will be, they would have a golden ticket. However, it is inevitable that there is no clear answer to this question.

We do know that there are existing jobs that will disappear entirely and new jobs that will be created that haven’t yet been thought of. Trying to imagine how this will materialise is challenge enough, but our real challenge is to prepare learners with the skills they need to take on these new roles and flourish. Our best chance of supporting our children and young people develop the skills, knowledge and passions that will enable them to be ‘work ready’ as they reach working age, is to continue working together. More so, we need to focus on building strong and meaningful partnerships between education providers, employers, thinkers, researchers, industry experts, young people, parents and, as is our own internal mission, Open Awards.


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