The STEM subjects very much grabbed my interest when I was younger. Part of this may have been the fact that I had a reasonable aptitude for science, technology and mathematics, the subjects which were made available to me at the time. These were subjects which I did better in when compared with non-STEM subjects such as English, history and geography.
The technology side of things particularly fitted my interests which was made all the more convenient by technological studies being available as a subject. Electronics, robotics, computer programming, pneumatics and mechanisms were all areas covered within technological studies. I engaged with each area of study. The requirement to identify and solve a problem as part of the coursework for the subject allowed me to play to my interests. The problem was for me to identify and for me to solve. Thinking back, one project I undertook was to create a home security system, although I can’t recollect how I arrived at this problem. My teachers further engaged me through technology competitions and other enrichment activities. I remember building a model of a fairground ride for one competition and having to rebuild the whole thing from scratch following an incident during the journey to the competition venue. My teachers also encouraged me to work with the younger students as a mentor when I became a senior student. Naturally, it seems reasonably predictable that I ended up in the technology world, in particular being involved in teaching IT and in Educational Technology.
So why did technology and the STEM subject in more general terms work for me? Ken Robinson hit the nail on the head in his book “The Element” (bit.ly/uked16oct01) in discussing how individuals can achieve more where aptitude meets passion. I had an aptitude for the STEM subjects and also a passion for them however I don’t feel these just appeared as if by magic. Taking a moment to consider passion firstly, part of my passion related to my home life where my father encouraged me to engage with technology, including buying me my first Commodore 64 computer at around the age of 12 years old. In addition to this, my teachers evoked a passion in me through presenting the learning content in interesting and engaging ways. They provided me scope to select my own problems to solve, problems that aligned with my personal interests. They gave me additional opportunities including clubs, competitions and other students to mentor. This all helped to develop my passion.
Considering aptitude, I do not believe this just appeared. My teachers supported and also challenged me in my learning. They allowed me to fail where necessary, but then supported me to overcome failure. As such, failure was not an end, but only a point on the journey towards success.
They challenged me to improve my work at every opportunity without demotivating me. They carefully staged and developed my aptitude. Things are not so different for our students today. New technologies should make it easier to engage students. Back in the day, I was programming in hex to make a 3 wheeled buggy move, while students today have a smartphone and a BB8 droid! Teachers have the ability and experience to carefully develop the aptitude of students through differentiated learning and exciting enrichment activities including global competitions. So why is there such a skills gap in STEM subjects?
I arrived at technology as interest and an area I pursued because it suited me as an individual, not because teachers were pushing the STEM subjects as a result of a report identifying a shortage. My teachers focused on “me” and on my fellow students, and on their interests and skills. Technology also appeared to me to be fun and even exciting.
If, despite excellent teaching, and amazing resources we still have a perceived shortage of STEM graduates, might it just be that these are the individual students that we have, that their strengths and interests lie elsewhere? If this is the case, should we not simply focus on whatever these strengths and interests are? Naturally, it is not an either/or situation, but would it be wrong if ended up with a shortage of STEM graduates, but an excess of creative arts students? Are we seeking to address what is nothing more than a random feature of the current cohort of students? If we did manage to bring about an increase in students studying STEM subjects, would a lack of Creative Arts or Language students then become an issue?
Like my own teachers, nurturing an underlining passion and the interests of individuals in subjects they enjoy is the key to developing an engaged and professionally satisfied generation of citizens for the future.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine
An educator with a passion for educational technology combined with experience working in primary, secondary, further education, higher education and international schools. Also currently a Microsoft and Google Certified Educator and a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. Find him on Twitter at @garyhenderson18 and read his blog at techandlearning.wordpress.com.