Children’s interest in STEM subjects is in decline, IET research shows

Posted on 23 Aug 2019 by Jonny Williamson

Children’s interest in Science is down 10% among 9-12 year olds, down 12% in Design and Technology and 14% in ICT/Computing over the past four years, shock new research has revealed.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) surveyed primary and secondary teachers’ perceptions of STEM education.

They found that time pressures of having to teach the full curriculum was the biggest obstacle in engaging pupils in STEM subjects (72% of primary and 63% of secondary teachers), and says that could be linked to the decline.

STEM subjects - Schoolchildren Programming Robot Together Stem Educational Class - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
57% of primary school teachers reported poor resources as a factor – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

More than half of primary school teachers (57%) also reported poor resources as a factor, whereas class distractions (42%) and a lack of pupil interest (42%) provide the biggest difficulties for secondary teachers.

The gender divide among children also presents an issue. Among 6-15-year olds, maths tops the poll as girls’ and boys’ favourite subject (more than two in five).

Girls enjoy Art (56%) and English (38%) the most, whereas boys are reportedly most interested in Maths (49%) and ICT (46%).

This poses fresh concern for the future of careers in STEM fields, such as engineering and technology, where reliance on physics still remains a key requirement, and what more can be done to support the education system in bolstering children’s interests in these fields.

Major influencers 

David Lakin, IET’s head of education, commented: “After parents, teachers are the next major influence of children, especially at primary age, where the presence of an inspirational teacher can set up patterns for life.

CROPPED - Pupils In Science Class - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
The 10% drop in children’s interests in Science is “concerning” – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

“It’s crucial schools engage children in STEM subjects at a young age but we’ve discovered a lack of resource and mounting time pressures present huge difficulties in achieving this.

“It is concerning to see a 10% drop in children’s interests in Science and one we have to turn around if we are to secure the next generation of engineers and technologists.”

It seems however that perceptions of engineering and technology careers are on the up with more than half of children describing engineering as skilled, followed by around two in five who think they are interesting, difficult, creative or important with words such as ‘messy’ and ‘dirty’ on the decline.

Career aspirations

When looking at children’s career aspirations, girls are more interested in the Arts, Education and Childcare, Healthcare, Hair and Beauty and Agriculture (including animal care), while boys are much more interested in Information Technology, Engineering, Technology, Sport, Construction and Property and Public Services.

Employee Engagement - Experienced Automotive Designer and Female Engineer Works with a Concept Car Model Prototype Design Team Work People Innovation Stock - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Only one in seven girls would consider an engineering job – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Engineering features in third place overall, but only one in seven girls themselves would consider an engineering job (13%), while technology is in the fourth slot, with only one in nine girls considering a career in this area (11%).

Parents mirror their children’s views on their perception of engineering and technology careers, but there is still a gap in knowledge with more than one in five parents feeling unable to support their child should they ask for advice about careers in this field.

Gender stereotypes

When parents think about their child’s career, very clear gender stereotypes emerge. Parents of girls think they would be most interested in the Arts, Education and Childcare, Healthcare and Hair and Beauty, while parents of boys think they would most like to go into Technology, Information Technology, Engineering, and Sport.

Lakin continued: “Art and design play a huge role in engineering careers and its important we emphasise these aspects among parents, teachers and pupils alike to widen appeal. The research shows that parents of girls are still less likely to nurture their interests in engineering careers than parents of boys.

“However, with the perceptions of engineering and technology improving and a willingness from parents and teachers alike to support and engage children with STEM subjects given the right guidance and tools, now is the time to bolster our efforts to ensure more young people reap the benefits.”

The full report, Inspiring the next generation of engineers, can be found on the IET’s Engineer a Better World website.

This is part of a series of articles about the skills crisis facing the UK manufacturing sector.

The series examines some of the serious problems affecting skills and training – and some of the positive initiatives aimed at producing a manufacturing workforce fit for the future.