‘You can’t be what you can’t see’: the importance of making STEM education relatable and relevant
14th March 2019

As we celebrate British Science Week, James Polansky, Headmaster at Boundary Oak School in Hampshire discusses the importance of giving young people meaningful STEM role models.


“It’s well documented that we’re likely to face a growing STEM skills gap over the next decade, as technology becomes an ever-increasing part of modern life. A recent report, Jobs of the Future, revealed that we can expect 142,000 extra jobs in STEM sectors in the UK between now and 2023. Sadly, we know that many children – particularly girls - start to lose interest in STEM subjects as they move from primary to secondary school.

Part of the reason for this is that young people start to find STEM subjects less relevant to their lives as the curriculum becomes more challenging. As educators, our challenge is to keep their eyes open to the bigger picture: that whether it is basic utilities, healthcare, technology or leisure, we stand on the shoulders of scientists and engineers in almost every facet of our daily lives.

It’s easy to talk about doctors, scientists and engineers as a collective; as the rocket scientists in white coats making all the clever things happen. But for young people to aspire to this, they need to be able to visualise themselves in those shoes. And that means giving them relatable role models; be they from similar backgrounds, schools, ethnicity, religion, gender or simply faced similar challenges in their journey through life.

You can’t be what you can’t see

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing, and we’re lucky enough to be welcoming former astronaut Helen Sharman to Boundary Oak to speak to our pupils about her career, training and experiences as an astronaut and a scientist. Not only did she become the first Briton in space at the age of just 27, she a passionate advocate of STEM education – and if being an astronaut isn’t enough to spark our pupils’ interest, how about being a research chemist at Mars researching the flavour properties of their chocolate!

But it isn’t only the celebrity scientists and engineers that our young people need exposure to. Of equal importance is the celebrating everyday STEM heroes. I was lucky enough to witness the birth of my fourth child last Christmas, a required c-section. My first reaction on her appearance was to turn to the female registrar and ask her to come and give a talk to my pupils!

Granted, not every STEM lesson can involve a high-profile guest speaker, but role models can come in many forms. At Boundary Oak, we also ask our parents to share their experiences and advice through assemblies, class talks and “hot-desking” events in order to maximise our pupils’ exposure to breadth and depth of possible career paths and the multitude of opportunities that exist in our world. Meanwhile, for our youngest pupils, a simple yet engaging STEM activity can be to introduce them to some of the more exciting hands-on experiences they can expect at secondary level. That’s why during British Science week, our senior school students will be giving science demonstrations to prep and pre-prep.”