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Young Engineers and Science Clubs: inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers by Thomas Wild, Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) and member of the Gender Commission 

We know that there are large groups in our society that feel that science ‘is not for them’. Factors impacting this including gender, ethnicity, geographical ‘remote-ness’ and levels of deprivation. We see gender as a huge factor in someone’s uptake of STEM subjects at further education.

Girls, in particular, are in general less likely to feel STEM is ‘for them’, although research strongly suggests that there is no inherent difference between girls and boys which should limit young people’s interests, capabilities or ambitions.

Thomas Wild

The Gender Commission 

I’ve been a member of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board’s Gender Commission since it was formed late last year and I was delighted to sit alongside employers from different sectors in Scotland, to see how we could address gender disparity in occupations.

The unique selling point of the Commission is in its aim to tackle barriers to gender diversity in different jobs – via the lens of apprenticeships - and through its employer-led membership. So along with employers from key sectors, membership organisations and people from education (early years, school and higher)I was pleased that we could have a seat at this table and help shape the discussion. 

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers 

Scottish Council for International Development (SCDI) is a non-political, not-for-profit membership organisation. It represents a cross section of the private, public and social economy sectors which seeks to influence governments and key stakeholders to ensure sustainable inclusive economic growth, everywhere in Scotland. 

SCDI identified the growing STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) skills shortage in Scotland over 30 years ago, and in response, formed YESC – the Young Engineers and Science Clubs programme

Through our clubs, young people take part in projects ranging from robotics to the energy transition, computing to civil engineering. We help inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers through an exciting range of competitions, projects and events, all underpinned by our school support network, covering all of Scotland. 

Breaking the barriers to STEM 

At the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), we have been working with the Improving Gender Balance and Equalities team, set up by Education Scotland to help tackle and challenge gender stereotypes, address unconscious bias and improve gender balance in subject uptakes and learner pathways.

They provided training to our whole organisation and helped create a best practice guide ‘Ensuring STEM is for all’, which is now embedded across all our projects.

Our work is possible through a wide range of partnerships with industry and government and we hope to bring this insight to the Commission. 

It is essential that Scotland’s young people develop the skills needed now and in the future. We also need to ensure that they are aware of all the different pathways to exciting and varied careers in the future. The work of the Gender Commission comes at a crucial time.  

The role of apprenticeships 

To attract a diverse range of people to these roles, we need to support and work with the businesses and industries that provide the apprenticeships. Apprenticeships offer a career pathway which could appeal to a diverse group of people, but we are still seeing huge gender imbalance between applicants for certain subjects.

There are inherent misconceptions around apprenticeships and tackling those will be a huge challenge. This Commission can provide that support by offering practical advice and solutions to help address barriers to improving gender diversity.

Thomas Wild

I envisage a lot of this being around language, how we describe roles, occupations and skills to children learning at school, and for people considering and applying for a job or apprenticeship, and ensuring that no unconscious bias creeps in. 

‘Targeted’ interventions 

I presented at a recent Gender Commission meeting, where I spoke to the group about the work we were doing with our industry partners. 

Over the last 6 years, YESC have delivered the Scottish element of a UK wide programme called Energy Quest with over 3150 days of workshops delivered across the UK. It encourages pupils to find out about sustainable energy and learn about engineering careers and pathways. 

As the programme enters the next three-year phase, the focus is now firmly on engaging groups underrepresented within engineering – girls, minority-ethnic groups, those from socially deprived areas and those from areas of geographic remoteness. These targeted interventions are crucial to challenge stereotypes and address the imbalance.  

Changing attitudes to occupations 

Programmes of this scale offer an amazing opportunity to evaluate attitudes and create impact at a meaningful level. For example, 56% of those who take part in a workshop, say a career in engineering is desirable, compared with 39% of the general population. 69% have positive perceptions of engineering compared to 51% of the general population.  

Effective evaluation is crucial if we are to identify high impact programmes across the country and learn from best practice. Without this, we may be doing more harm than good. A standardised evaluation template that businesses can use will be explored further by the commission in coming weeks. 

 

While large national programmes play a key role in changing perceptions and often get a lot of coverage, local connections are hugely valuable. Mark Anderson, Head Teacher of Prestwick Academy highlighted the importance of his school’s partnership with local businesses, Prestwick Airport and local colleges.  

Small and medium-sized businesses have a central role to play, as they offer the majority of apprenticeship places across the country. My hope is that the Gender Commission is able to provide the tools and advice that gives SMEs the confidence to engage positively with local schools. 

Ultimately it will come down to businesses across the country to take the recommendations of the Commission and look inwardly. Those that do, will reap the benefits that a diverse workforce brings.  

 

Find out more about the SAAB Gender Commission.

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