The scientists and engineers of the future won’t just arrive on our doorsteps. St Gobain Glass UK believes it’s up to industry to fire youngsters’ imaginations with the thrill of making things.
For nearly a decade, Saint Gobain Glass UK (SGGUK) has been working with schools and youngsters locally. It’s not just to maintain its standing in the community – although it takes that responsibility very seriously.
It’s also because it believes in opening young people’s minds to the excitement of science and technology and, by extension, to a career spent using them.
It is only too easy for young people to see manufacturing as boring, routine or, most damning of all, not cool. It exasperates MD Dr Alan McLenaghan: “We don’t have the media access other sectors have. We are often seen on TV as the bad guys or even the dull guys. Yet we have jobs that need high-level skills and intellect and offer great opportunities.” So McLenaghan and his team are committed to building bridges between local schools and their own operation. There’s undoubtedly some self-interest. By becoming a source of fun and stimulation, SGGUK is encouraging the glassmakers of the future. But equally, they want to find and foster a fascination for the subjects that are the bedrock of all manufacturing: science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM.
For five years, SGGUK has been sponsoring STEM activities through North Yorkshire Business and Education Partnership (NYBEP). NYBEP is part of a UK-wide network aimed at linking education with business to help young people develop skills they will use throughout their lives. The glass plant regularly hosts visits from local schools, over 200 students last year alone. But just as important is its participation in STEM Fairs. Run by NYBEP regularly across the region, they bring students into direct contact with local companies, each providing practical, fun experiments to illustrate key scientific principles and to show how they relate to the real world.
This year, the younger ones are exploring the principles of magnetism and the properties of ferrous metals through a game called Magic Magnets. They are also learning to understand light, angling mirrors to deflect laser beams to hit a target. After an introduction to different types of glass and their uses, the older ones are working in teams to design buildings to specification, choosing the right glass properties for the job and the budget. SGGUK’s own apprentices have not only made many of the games but are also running the workshops. It develops their skills too.
“The kids love it,” says engineering manager Mick Dickinson. “They are fighting to get a go. And they ask really interesting questions.” For many youngsters, these fairs are probably their first chance to really explore science for themselves and it can be a turning point in their lives. “Parents don’t always realize the breadth and opportunities for young people working in big companies,” explains NYBEP’s James Curran. “STEM fairs help them find the hook. How many kids do you know who don’t enjoy learning through doing? STEM lends itself to that – it’s exploratory and stimulating.” And a lot of the material finds its way back into the classroom. Many local schools base their curriculum on material provided by companies like SGGUK.
How often have you heard employers complaining schools don’t understand what is really needed in the workplace? STEM activities can solve that problem in one fell swoop. But – and this is the nub of the issue – employers have to be willing to go the extra mile.
In tough times, sponsorship for STEM activities is under pressure, especially at primary level. “We draw down national and local funding,” explains Curran.
“We have to relate it to local need so a lot of it gets channelled into secondary education even though we believe in engaging young people from primary school right through their education.” SGGUK put in extra sponsorship for the youngest students, which helped to attract other local employers. “If we hadn’t secured that funding, there would have been a whole cohort of young people missing out on that early experience,” says Curran. “So the first time they would have picked up on STEM activities would probably have been in secondary school. And those 4-5 years make a huge difference.” It’s a view entirely shared by Steve Severs, SGGUK’s operations director.
“STEM fairs at primary level let us connect to the kids before they have established any prejudices and when they are still fascinated by the newness of science. It’s not a heavy sell – it’s about sowing a seed. There’s no positive stereotyping for manufacturing – no branding by Beckham for us. The headlines are all about scaleddown operations. The subliminal message is a poor future without excitement. We can stem that tide of information with the reality of the picture. We make a product they can see all around them and that will always be needed. And, by the way, there’s a great future ahead if you are one of the people making it.”