Enjoy the science on your doorstep

Despite personal enthusiasm, my science teachers – at high school in Canada –never managed to inject any colour into what I considered totally grey and dry subjects. Maths was a challenge I mastered with dogged perseverance, but for me, studying it and physics, chemistry and biology was always dutiful, never wholehearted.

How different it might have been if I’d lived in Cambridge then, and been surrounded by the historic lore of Nobel Prize winners. Maybe I’d have chosen a different path if I’d been exposed to the fascinating museums and events the city has to offer – from the Centre for Computing History to the Cambridge Science Centre, and especially the fortnight-long annual Cambridge Science Festival (which started this week and goes on until March 20th).

It’s a fact that far fewer females enter into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) professions and getting girls interested in STEM subjects has been an issue for a long time. Research reported recently from the University of Cambridge considered whether brain type (the ability to empathise or systemise) might explain the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers, and many column inches have been devoted to the topic over the years.

It seems there is no easy fix. Entrepreneur and angel investor Sherry Coutu, who spoke about the importance of scaling up to a Cambridge Network audience recently, talked about the Skills Gap, which she cited as ‘the biggest threat to UK competitiveness’.

She detailed the huge number of unfilled current job vacancies and the fact that more are expected (the Royal Society predicted 1 million new science, engineering and tech professionals would be required in the UK by 2020, while the OECD forecast a need for 5.8 million in the app economy by 2018). The majority of these are likely to be in STEM, and Sherry has been instrumental in establishing a free service, founders4schools, which aims to inspire students, male and female, to investigate STEM subjects. It is a platform through which teachers can find and arrange for local business leaders and role models to visit schools, and it’s proving highly successful.

However, as she pointed out in a quote from The Economist (23 Jan 2016): “1 billion young people will start work in the next decade – only 40% in jobs that now exist”. How can we prepare young people to tackle jobs that don’t yet exist?

Encouraging them to make the right subject choices at an early age will help, because, according to Sherry, the cost of re-education increases dramatically over time: from 50p at age 14 to £500 at 18 and a whopping £10,000 at age 25.

Teachers and schools can only do so much. Maybe it’s up to parents to take advantage of the brilliant resources that exist, and in Cambridge we are lucky enough to have many of these on our doorstep. Have a look at the hugely diverse opportunities presented by the Cambridge Science Festival – including hundreds of events created for children – and check out the Cambridge Network events calendar from time to time to make the most of what’s available here. Even us old ones can go along and learn something…

Written by Judi Coe

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