The big STEM sell
02 Dec 2011
The Big Bang Fair has already become a phenomenon in its short life span, with 22,000 preregistered visitors already knocking on the door for entry to next year's event. Brian Wall reports
It's the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK. Everything that happens at The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair is aimed at showing young people just how many exciting and rewarding opportunities there are out there for them, given the right experience and qualifications.
Since the first fair in 2009, it has continued to grow, with more than 29,000 people pouring into the fair at London ExCeL in 2011. For 2012, all the indications are that it will be even bigger. "From 15-–17 March, we expect to leave 35,000 people at Birmingham's NEC amazed at just how exciting engineering and science can be," enthuse the organisers behind this remarkable event.
So why all the excitement? Well, as the saying goes, you needed to be there. Through practical and fun activities, like designing a solar-powered water heater, exploring radioactivity with a real Geiger counter or experimenting with a bionic eye, young people can see where their classroom subjects could lead. They're also be encouraged to ask about everything – from the first principles of physics, to how to go about applying for apprenticeships, jobs or university courses.
But it's about more than thrills. At its heart, The Big Bang is about careers and futures and highlighting the exciting possibilities that exist for young people with science, technology, engineering and maths backgrounds. It's about the contribution they, with the right motivation, can make to the UK economy and to society in general.
Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK, which leads The Big Bang, says that what is most gratifying, as the build-up to the 2012 event gains momentum, is the alacrity with which teachers and children have been booking up for the two school days of the fair. "It's been absolutely amazing," he comments. "Half of all teachers in the UK are now aware of The Big Bang Fair, which is great, considering the short time it has been going. They and the young people in school are looking more and more at how scientific studies can be applied to the real world and the career opportunities this can open up in the future."
Jackson points to the growing need for more and more young people to be trained up to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. "We are going to need a workforce with the technical skills to cope with the fast changing demographic in the UK, especially as we become more innovative around manufacturing, installation and repair, whether that involves the billions of pounds designated to tackling the carbon challenge, the creation of artificial limbs or producing a new generation of X-ray machines.
"Not only does The Big Bang open up everyone's eyes up to what is possible, but crucially it allows young people to demonstrate their own technology to a wide audience. It used to be that youngsters were told what they should be; we are now widening that up to show them what they could be."
WHY THE BIG BANG MATTERS
The role the event plays in changing people's perceptions of engineering cannot be understated. According to The Big Bang's findings, two in three UK parents lack knowledge to encourage their children into skilled careers.
And while medicine, science and engineering have topped a poll of the careers that parents dream their sons and daughters will follow, two thirds (68%) of UK parents are holding back from encouraging their children to consider these careers, because of their own lack of knowledge about these fields, research reveals. This has clear implications for the country's future economic growth.
In a study of 3,000 UK parents with children aged 4-17 by The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair, a third (31%) say they have no idea about the jobs available in these areas, and one in five (19%) find science and engineering too difficult to comprehend.
In response to the findings, The Big Bang warns that this gap in knowledge, which is stopping parents from encouraging their children into highly skilled jobs could have an overwhelming impact on young people's aspirations and the future state of the economy.
Plugging the skills gap is already a challenge, with almost half of UK employers (45%) having difficulty recruiting people with science, technology, engineering and maths* skills, which could hinder growth in critical areas. Physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox, spokesperson and supporter of The Big Bang, comments: "With science and engineering ranking so highly on parents' most wanted careers list, it is clear they have high hopes for their children. But the research suggests that they need to feel more equipped to help their kids make career decisions.
"Without this encouragement from parents, we could see the STEM skills gap widen, which poses a risk to our country's competitive edge. The Big Bang exists to give young people and their parents a better understanding of how just how much fun and inspiring science and engineering can be."
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