The combination of technology and focused events can help bring STEM skills to life for the next generation, reflects Autodesk Education's Mike Westlake.
While there is a huge amount of concern about the STEM skills gap in the UK, arguably not enough is being done to engage students in the teaching of STEM subjects at school.
Often teachers lack the support and infrastructure they need to bring these subjects to life, creating a need for students to be engaged in other ways.
With Swansea College of Art, University of Wales Trinity St Davids and Headstart Cymru we recently co-hosted DesignNow, an event targeted at A-Level students who hadn’t yet made their university choices.
The aim was to inform the students about what a career in STEM would be like and of the broad range of options under the STEM umbrella.
In order to achieve this, it was essential that we could bring STEM subjects to life by truly engaging the students.
Equipping the students with the right design tools and having them apply these to an engineering problem is key to sparking their interest, curiosity and, ultimately, inspiring our next generation of engineers into embracing STEM careers.
On this occasion, our design brief objective asked students to design a structure, vehicle or robot companion for our inhabitation of Mars.
As they were all tech-savvy, after a few hours of training the majority of the students had mastered using the software very competently.
The winning team excelled because its members worked both with the design software and with physical materials – such as card and foam – to make a prototype of a beehive-like house.
Their thorough analysis of conditions on Mars and research into how these have affected previous landing missions helped to shape their final design which was extremely impressive.
In particular, their design won because it used wind energy, rather than solar panels as their research had revealed that dust on the planet’s surface would coat the solar panels.
What this event revealed is that many students don’t realise that studying STEM skills can lead to such exciting careers.
The students who already had a vague interest in STEM subjects felt that the competition really heightened their interest in this area. Those who are currently studying product design relished the chance to embrace a design challenge with no limitations.
As part of the event, the chance to explore the university also enlightened students to the huge breadth of subjects on offer across the STEM spectrum. From industrial design to automotive design and mechanical engineering, they realised there was something for every strength and interest.
It was hugely rewarding to see how much the students enjoyed the task. Events like this are hugely effective in showing students what it’s really like to be an engineer, as well as busting myths about what these professions involve.
While students have access to technology at school from an early age, there is often very little support, both for students and teachers, to help them get the most from it.
Teachers need more training to help students to get the most out of the new technology available to them at school.
While Autodesk provides free software to schools and universities, it has a responsibility to go beyond this and to provide STEM ambassadors to train teachers and help support this shift.
Schools and universities also have a responsibility to engage with partners in industry to take advantage of the free training opportunities which are available.