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STEM isn’t just an easy to remember acronym. It’s a perfect metaphor for what those subjects represent; the supportive, main section of something from which all other parts grow. All industries are reliant upon foundational knowledge in these four areas to not only survive but to thrive and to continue growing.
As we look back over the last few years, thinking about the Covid-19 pandemic, a global event which has impacted each and every one of us on a very deep and very real level, we can easily see the importance of the STEM subjects. It was a time in which mathematicians and engineers who were able to create algorithms and models, identifying the speed at which the disease may spread and how effectively various approaches could slow this spread. It was a time in which a global pandemic was brought under control – long before it would naturally have begun to loosen its grip on the world – through the dedicated work of scientists using the most up-to-date technology available. It was a time in which we saw science, technology, engineering and maths, allowing us to make enormous leaps forward, in an astonishingly short space of time. We all witnessed the importance of STEM to the human race and its continued survival.
Yet, time and again, speaking to young people about maths and science (and, by extension, technology and engineering) leads me to hear the same question, “When am I ever going to use it in the real world?” Sometimes, it will carry the qualifier of a particular job the young person wants to do, which – in their mind – will definitely not require any knowledge of chemistry, algebra or computer coding. Sometimes, it will even come with an acknowledgement that being able to add and subtract are useful but this will swiftly be followed by the suggestion that anything beyond this is a waste of time.
However, I don’t think anyone would want a hair colourist who doesn’t have some knowledge of chemistry. Understanding the quantities of the different chemicals to combine and what the strength of the solution should be is not only important in making sure that the customer gets the colour they want but is also important in making sure that the customer doesn’t end up with a scalp covered in burns and their hair falling out!
If you’re hiring a builder to come and build you a new garden wall, you want them to be able to apply their estimation skills accurately. You don’t want to pay over the odds for their time after they take far longer than necessary because they are traipsing back and forth to the builders’ yard, having massively underestimated the quantities of materials they need.
Or imagine you’re a business owner hiring a marketing agency for the first time. You wouldn’t be impressed if you discovered that no one in the agency had the first clue how to write the formulae necessary to create a spreadsheet in Excel to perform some basic analytics on the data they were gathering for you.
On our Discover Maths programme, the final trip our young people go on is to Warner Brothers Studio Tour. They go and visit a former film set, filled with the trappings of one of the most successful film franchises in history, an emblem of the creative industries in Britain. The reason this is the centre piece of the programme is that STEM subjects are at the heart of all industries, the creative industries included. Although we might think of subjects such as art and drama as being hugely removed from science and maths when we are in school, the reality is that maths and science are innately creative subjects themselves. They require creativity of thought which art and drama foster and, at the same time, maths and science support the creative subjects to push forward into new realms.
The practical effect of making the actor Robbie Coltrane look big enough to be the half-giant, Hagrid, when sitting at a table next to the three child actors who played Harry, Ron and Hermione, was only possible through the necessary understanding of angles, perspective and scale. The beautiful views of Hogwarts castle in the Harry Potter films, each a work of art in its own right, were only possible through the interaction of key aspects of all the STEM subjects which led to the creation of the computers powerful enough to scale and render the images. More broadly, the very existence of the cameras themselves, and therefore cinema itself, are the result of the application of scientific knowledge, progress in technology, careful engineering and a healthy dose of maths to ensure that everything works.
As I said, STEM subjects are the supportive, main section from which all other parts grow. We need to make sure that we are not so distracted by the beautiful flowers and intricate leaves growing from them that we end up missing their strength and power.