STEM Subjects: Are they really Superior?

The term STEM refers to a group of subjects; science, technology, engineering and mathematics. All have their own branch subjects as well, such as chemistry and physics for science, and these are considered to be STEM fields also. Obviously, then, it’s an important area of study – but does that mean STEM subjects are the best to pursue, definitively? Are they popular? Are they completely superior to all other subjects in every regard? Let’s do some further investigating and uncover the truth of the matter!

Level of Interest

We can start with the most obvious way to gauge if something really is living up to the hype: determining its popularity. No one is disputing that STEM fields are vital, and each year many talented and innovative minds gravitate towards these areas. Every breakthrough society that has been has, in one way or another, stemmed (pun not intended) from the STEM arena.

But how has that interest fluctuated as time’s gone on? Well, using data from 2013 in a 2017 study, the University of Cambridge discovered that the most popular country for STEM study was actually Germany, with 36% of their students studying in these fields. Only 19% of students in the United States followed suit. The UK didn’t fare much better, as interest waned significantly in Information and Communication technologies, with a mere 9% uptake – a sure surprise in today’s digitised and computer-centric world. Clearly, these aren’t ground-breaking figures.

It could be said that, to some degree, more creative subjects attract a higher intake of students. Lifelong passions become moneymaking opportunities, and there could be greater room for working on things that are perhaps more universally cherished (music, performance, literature, etc). In any event, STEM subjects need a popularity boost!

Discrimination and Behaviour

Needless to say, any career path or academic subject that discriminates on any basis is far from being considered ‘superior’ at all. The aforementioned study from Cambridge regarding STEM subjects simultaneously revealed that there’s a huge gender disparity at the heart of these fields. More men sign up and study these subjects than women in a heavily disproportionate number.

Through a blend of crippling stereotypes and outlandish misconceptions, STEM subjects still fail to involve many women and girls the world over. This isn’t just a minor quibble, but a major problem festering at the heart of these fields, and indeed in other professional circles too. Still, it’s worth mentioning that the arts are practically open to all and are spearheading the movement for representation and equality in all its forms.

A lot of snobbery and antagonistic behaviour can originate here too, so from an attitude and behavioural standpoint, things definitely need to improve. Some might see the unforgiving nature of the STEM field as a process of elimination in ‘weeding out the weak ones’, but frankly, that’s not an entirely helpful or welcoming culture to promote. It’s worth noting that not everyone in the STEM fields subscribes to these attitudes, but on a whole, some changes need to be made.

Job Availability

STEM subjects typically lead to better job prospects. There’s no way around this; the breadth of practical knowledge students acquire in these fields is astounding. The job market is always demanding graduates with these skills, offering great career enhancing opportunities for those who’ve gone down this route. Few STEM graduates will have a hard time finding work.
Should they fail to find a role that suits them, some of these graduates then strike out and launch their own start up tech businesses instead. In that sense, it’s far easier for them to create their own opportunities too, due to the plethora of knowledge they have at their disposal. Admittedly, some creative graduates could likely follow suit and start their own firm depending on their skills, but many of them unfortunately get stuck in a rut after graduation day and find themselves unemployed or being overqualified for the jobs they’re in.

Rate of Pay

Students who enrol on STEM courses will also have an easier time in securing a high rate of pay. The skills they learn are highly specialist, and the jobs themselves often involve enormous amounts of responsibility. While the arts are fulfilling in their own way and pay ludicrously well for the lucky or famous few, it’s the STEM fields that truly change the world with each passing day. Consequently, the pay in these areas skyrockets accordingly.

Unfortunately, it tends to be quite the reverse for those in the arts. Reportedly, arts graduates cost the taxpayer £35,000 each, simply because countless art graduates never earn enough money to pay back their student loan in full. Obviously, this is a rather concerning discovery, and means that many people enrolled on a creative degree won’t ever earn a truly impactful wage. In fact, numerous art graduates end up earning less than non-graduates, who spent those three years pursuing a career through alternative means.

Of course, pay isn’t everything. What’s more important; having a big house and a nice car or feeling a sense of enjoyment, happiness and pride in every piece of work you produce? It all comes down to perspective. Some STEM workers absolutely despise what they do but do it for the pay, whereas those in the arts sometimes earn very little but adore their passion. Still, it can’t be disputed that, on average, STEM workers do earn more.

Conclusion

It does seem to be the case that STEM fields offer more room for career progression and higher earnings. However, these perks are mostly available to men. Once some of the snobbery fizzles away and more equality arrives in the field, STEM will be deserving of the respect and admiration its enthusiasts already believe it has.

A report published in April 2019 by the Lords Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision, ‘Tackling Intergenerational Unfairness’, suggests that many young people are not gaining the right skills early in life. In relation to the issue of lifelong learning, it also asserts that when they grow older, people are unable to access the training they need to stay employable in a changing workplace.

This problem is even more concerning given the fact that the UK has an ageing population – and that many of today’s employed are expected to be working into their 70s. The key challenge to arresting this trend is to design an effective system that gives everyone the ability to perpetually learn and be able to keep their skills relevant, throughout their life. Lifelong Learning is the summary description of this system.

Technological development presents one of the key challenges in lifelong learning. With technology developing at pace and a shortage of young people choosing to pursue STEM subjects, how do we remain competitive in the global economic market? And how do we ensure that our ageing workforce keep the skills needed to stay employable?

If workplace satisfaction is one indicator of how employees feel about their lifelong learning prospects, Acas reported back in 2012 that employees are more dissatisfied with their jobs and work-life balance in the UK than in most other European countries. Out of 20 European countries that responded, only 6 were more dissatisfied than the UK, according to statistics reported in the British Social Attitudes survey, led by NatCen Social Research. Similar research made in more recent times has shown that little has changed. If anything, our workforce may have become more unhappy.

So, what steps can be taken to help aid lifelong learning and improve job satisfaction? Lindsey Rix, Managing Director of Savings and Retirement, Aviva UK, is quoted as saying that those aged 45 to 60 represent nearly one-in-three of the company’s UK workforce; but perhaps more pointedly, that  this is also the fastest-growing age-group working for them.                     Aviva launched a mid-life MOT in October 2018, allowing the company to invest in the population’s continued development, enabling them to retain their critical skills and experience.

Lifelong learning is about creating a society where everyone regardless of income or background can enjoy every stage of life with the knowledge and learning they require to adapt to a changing world. Tactics including regular reviews and planning for on-the-job learning present an opportunity to impart important life skills, for the present and the future.

To conclude, then, lifelong learning is a concept that organisations must take seriously to enable our country to thrive in future years.

Beginnings are exciting. People are filled with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. They walk with motivation and a spring in their step. They dream about an exciting future and feel energised by their aspirations. When embarking on new learning courses, they picture themselves studying with discipline and rigour, and feel invigorated by going back to being a student.

The initial sparkle of enthusiasm, however, does not last forever. Your motivation might start to dip after a few days, weeks or month. You might wonder if you have over-committed yourself or if you are on the right path.
This article will help you develop skills of self-motivation. It will be particularly helpful for those who have already embarked on a learning journey and are looking for ways to to re-energise.

Revisit your Motivation’s ‘Why’

At the start of your journey, you are crystal clear about your ‘why’. You might want to get a promotion at work, find a new and exciting job or move on to higher education. As you progress with your studies, it is easy to forget about your rationale of studying, though. Take a couple of minutes each day to remind yourself of your ‘why’.

You could brainstorm new reasons for sticking with your studies. Have you ever considered setting up a business one day? Would you love to dip your toe into the field of teaching? Are you aiming to become a role model for young people coming from difficult backgrounds?

Create a Motivation Vision Board

Once you have nailed down your reasons for studying, you can create a visual representation of your future plans. Rest assured, you do not need to be creative to do so. Set aside an hour, find yourself a bunch of colourful pictures which represent your future goals and attach them on a large sheet of paper. There is no right or wrong way to do this. You could think about your study goals, career aspirations, your personal life objectives or any other life area. Keep your vision board on your desk or a place where you would see it daily. It will be your useful ally reminding you each day of your fabulous future.

Reward Yourself

Most people do not excel at recognising their successes. They get engrossed in overcoming hurdles after hurdles after hurdles. They don’t even stop long enough to pat themselves on the back.

There is a reservoir of reasons why you could benefit from celebrating your achievements. When you acknowledge that you are making positive progress, you feel happier. You feel invigorated by taking steps towards your desired destination and come back to your next task with renewed enthusiasm and energy.

Think about dogs for a moment. While undergoing training, they receive small but frequent treats which motivate them to jump through higher and higher hoops. With the treats, they are happy to push for bigger and better heights. Similarly, we need to reward ourselves with small treats to develop better self-motivation. You could go for a brief walk in the sun to break up the day and get some fresh air.

You might meet up with a friend after a long day of study and enjoy some thought provoking conversation. Or you may prefer to engage in your favourite hobby, be it painting, pottery, gardening or golf. The opportunities are endless. Make sure that you build in regular rewards in your schedule and see your motivation soar.

Distance learning is one of the most exciting developments in our age. My first real encounter with distance learning took place in 2013. I embarked on a four-year academic course which altered my future beyond what I could have imagined. Since completing my course I have developed a thirst for knowledge and discovered new strengths. I have increased my independence and became more confident at solving problems. Distance learning helped me to see the world via a fresh pair of eyes.

There are dozens of negative myths surrounding distance learning, however. I have cherry-picked some of the most common for those of you considering studying this way.

Myth 1 – Studying in Isolation

Although you might be studying on your own most of the time, you are far from being isolated. You most likely have an existing support network around you, including friends and family, parents and peers, mentors and tutors. Recognise the support you already have and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Studying independently means that you can better pace your learning. You can dig deeper into the subject areas that fascinate you most, whilst also possessing the option to slow down and spend more time on areas which you find particularly challenging. In this way you are able to deeply and richly engage with the study materials even in the comfort of your own home. Studying by yourself does not mean being isolated. Far from it.

Myth 2 – Weak Course Materials

Many people are concerned about the quality of distance learning course materials. Recent research, however, shows that many online courses are of equal or superior quality to conventional classroom courses. Teachers at leading distance learning schools spend hundreds of hours developing and tweaking learning materials. They frequently update and revise the courses to keep them up-to-date. They listen to students’ feedback and embed useful changes to the curriculum. Most distance learning courses need to be approved by rigorous quality assurance organisations.

Myth 3 – Inexperienced Tutors

Leading schools and colleges employ highly experienced, qualified and capable tutors. Potential tutors go through a meticulous screening process before being hired. The best schools closely examine the amount of relevant experience the tutor has, as well as their academic credentials and professional background.

Myth 4 – It is Impossible to Find the Right School

The key here is research. Find out how long the potential distance learning school has been operating and investigate online reviews. Research how much experience their tutors have, explore the school’s ethical approaches and try to arrange a conversation on the phone to see how helpful their student advisers are. If you carry out thorough research, you will find a great school.

My distance learning course opened up a new world to me. It led me to encounter inspiring academic ideas, new perspectives and exciting career options. It can do for you too.

In the UK, children start studying a foreign language at the age of 11. Yet by 14, many have given up on the subject completely. Why? Well, research suggests a big factor is that students perceive good grades to be less attainable in languages compared to other subjects. However, this need not be a reality for your child. After all, the ability to speak a second language will provide a great boost to their confidence and future career prospects. So, how can you help them prepare for their foreign language oral exams?

The good news is that there are many interactive tools available to support your child in learning to speak a new language, enabling them to have fun as they go. Here are my top picks…

1. Gus on the Go

Gus the friendly (and incredibly cute!) owl makes learning languages a fun experience in this this app, which features 10 interactive lessons, engaging vocabulary reviews and games. It’s available in 28 different languages.

2. Netflix’s Language Learning

Netflix’s Language Learning is a Chrome extension which allows learning of language from films and series of programmes. The ability to compare a translation with the audio (sound) and written word means your child can absorb a lot in a quick timescale. It also enables learning at their own pace and provides time to digest more challenging phrases.

3. Memrise 

With the Memrise app, your child can practice specific words or phrases at a time, loosely connected by topic areas and focusing on practical words and phrases. The ability to watch videos of native speakers will help your child to master pronunciation, especially for those difficult words.

A major plus point of Memrise is that it makes language learning fun, with a focus on learning through gaming, known as gamification. The use of memes to help memorise vocabulary is also helpful.

4. Duolingo

One of the most popular language learning apps, Duolingo was created by native speakers and again uses gamification to make language learning fun and addictive. Users earn points for correct answers in a race against the clock. The app is available in 24 different languages.

Online learning platforms, media and apps can provide excellent support for children preparing for oral language exams for their GCSEs and A Levels. They make language learning more accessible and easier to take at your child’s pace. And perhaps most importantly, they provide a fun and light-hearted learning environment suited to their learning style preferences.

At present, GCSE English Literature exams does not allow students to take their textbooks in with them. The AQA exam board requires them to have learned the following:
• A Shakespearean play
• A 19th century novel
• A modern text
• 15 poems belonging to the anthology of Power & Conflict or Love & Relationships

That’s 18 texts – and other examination boards have similar requirements. Students are expected to have an in-depth understanding of each, be able to analyse them and remember quotations. This raises the question, is the exam a test of skills or memory (or both)? And which should it be?

Granted, being able to memorise can be a skill-for-life. For instance, doctors need to be able to think on their feet and recall information, often with no time to check a textbook. Surely, though, this skill doesn’t need to fall on subjects like English. It leads me back to my original question – is the English Literature exam a test of memory or skills?

In my view, it is both. As a teacher, however, I often see how the pressure to remember everything overshadows the time invested in understanding texts and practising analysis skills.

I’m sure that the thinking behind the decision for the exam to be closed book stems from the idea that it makes it easier for students. Or perhaps there is the idea that they could cheat. But would making the exam easier be a bad thing? After all, it would be making it easier for good reason – the pressure to remember would be alleviated, without compromising on the application of skills and understanding of texts. And, if there is the belief that it could lead to cheating in exams, I ask – how?

Even if students brings an annotated book into an exam, they can’t cheat. They won’t know what the question is, for a start. And they still need to know the book, cover to cover, to know where to look and what to reference. Yes, they may have notes about the writer’s methods but they will still need to analyse this in the context of the question.

In addition, there are questions on unseen poetry and on set texts, that dictate which extract students must place their initial focus on. My opinion is that the exam should allow students to bring their texts in with them. What’s yours?

The popularity of foreign language study at GCSE level in the UK appears to be on the decline. In 2002, around three quarters of pupils studied a language other than English as part of their GCSE qualifications. Two years later, the government stopped making languages compulsory at GCSE level, and by 2011, participation had fallen to 40 per cent.

The latest figures as reported on the British Council’s website in 2018, show the number of 16-year olds studying a language is 47 per cent. There’s work to be done to get this figure back to 2002 highs.

If you’ve ever studied a second language or are even currently considering learning one, you may have faced (or been put off by) challenges posed by more traditional learning methods, including a classroom filled with people of varying ability levels, experiences and personalities.

Some of the other potential pitfalls of learning a foreign language via a classroom-based fixed curriculum include dialogues being spoken too quickly, the pace of learning being focused on a timetable, and study being focused on a group’s ability rather than that of an individual. Any of these things can lead to students feeling rushed and unprepared for exams.

Beyond the Classroom

However, with the passing of time and advances in technology, there have been some interesting recent developments in online language learning. Netflix, the American media-services provider, have brought language learning to your front room, with Language Learning, a Chrome extension which allows the learning of language from films and series of programmes.

The ability to compare a translation with the audio (sound) and written word means that you are able to take in a lot of information in a quick timescale. It also enables you to go at a self-directed pace, taking one sentence at a time, allowing plenty of time to digest more challenging phrases. There’s even the bonus of a pop-up dictionary when you need to find out the meaning of more challenging words, and the Chrome extension will go as far as telling you which words are important to learn, and which can be set aside for later.

Then there’s the Memrise app, making language learning fun; with a focus on gamification and the use of memes to help memorise vocabulary. Another of the most popular language learning apps, Duolingo, was created by native speakers and also uses gamification to make language learning fun and addictive.

Online learning tools and apps provide an excellent complement to studies for qualifications such as GCSEs and A Levels. They make modern language learning more accessible, easier to take at the student’s pace and, perhaps most importantly, offer a social learning environment that provides relevancy to an individual’s interests and lifestyle.

With so many options available to study languages online, there’s certainly an exciting future for those looking to learn a new language. There are links to the Memrise and DuoLingo websites below.

https://www.duolingo.com/

https://www.memrise.com/

When you think of a hologram, what immediately springs to mind? Sci-fi programmes such as Star Trek? What about a teacher? Maybe not. Think again, because this technology could be the future life of online study, Jim, and it’s not quite as you know it…

Imagine a world where full-size, 360-degree images of teachers or lecturers are projected on-screen and can be viewed without the need for any expensive, special gadgets. It would be a world in which holograms animatedly engaged with students in locations across the globe. Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s becoming a reality.

In November 2018 it was announced that University students at Imperial College Business School in London will be the first in the world to have live lectures delivered to them via augmented reality holograms. Could holograms become a firm fixture in the technological armour that is the future of online learning? Or is this nothing more than a passing technology fad?

Augmented reality holograms allow remote students to engage with their tutor in a unique way. The hologram is realised by projecting a live image of a lecturer onto a screen in front of the audience. The lecturer then presents live from another location elsewhere in the country or even the world.

However, using holograms is not a new concept. Music concerts have been delivered using holograms to physically represent artists. In April 2012, a virtual Tupac Shakur took the stage with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. It was the first time a hologram had appeared at a live performance in front of a large American crowd.

But does the use of holograms in teaching provide the same authentic feel of having a lecturer or teacher physically present in the lecture hall or classroom? It would certainly seem so. Holograms can engage with students as a present human being would; using gestures such as pointing and making eye contact with their audience.

And what about robots? At America’s Michigan State University, some online students embody robots to enable them to have a ‘presence’ in face-to-face classrooms. This helps draw their learning experience closer to that of their on-campus counterparts. To use the robots, remote (online) learners download free software onto their desktop, laptop or smart device and log in. It enables them to control their movements and zoom level using the arrow keys.

So how did the online students find the experience of being a robot? Quite positive, it seems. They reported feeling more engaged and less prone to distraction compared to using the less developed forms of synchronous online learning. Surprisingly, the result of using the robots showed the on-campus students felt a greater sense of connection to their remote peers.

Online study continues to increase in popularity. Embracing the use of technologies, including holograms and robots, will help play a part in bridging the physical gap between classroom and remote learners. Time to beam you up, teacher!

Hopefully you have not left all of your revision to the last minute!  But even if you have, these tips should help you.

First things first – relax.  You cannot study well or absorb information if you are stressed. It may be last minute, but you are not out of time. And you’d be surprised at how much you can pack into your short-term memory.

Also make sure you take breaks. A common response to last-minute revision is to try and study for as long as possible. But you will remember more if you take regular short breaks and get enough uninterrupted sleep.

1.      Clock Revision

This is a tip that I first saw on TES and although it is described as a teacher activity, it is adaptable.

How it works: split topics into 5 minute chunks and make notes. That way you will only focus on the key areas and, get through  a lot of information in just 60 minutes.

This leads me to an important tip – don’t sweat the small stuff

When you are revising close to the exams, you need to prioritise on the major topics or key areas of each topic. 

2.      Identify Gaps

Instead of revising material you already know, try and identify your knowledge gaps and focus on filling them. It makes last minute revision both efficient and effective.

A good way of identifying gaps, is by using a checklist or the contents page of a textbook and ticking everything you feel confident on. That way, you can easily see areas that need more attention.

3.      Write your own Exam Paper and Mark Scheme

I love this one. The best way to know any topic is to teach it. And whilst you may not have the time or opportunity to actually teach others a topic, you do have time to write your own exam paper. 

In writing an exam paper, you will be forced to think about the topic in-line with the style of questions you will face in the real thing. The most useful part here is writing the mark scheme.

Look at sample material from your exam board and write in their style.  This will help you revise topics and improve your exam technique.

4.      Keep it Visual

A quick, and more importantly an effective way to revise, is by using visual aids like mind maps. 

Think about memory tricks and visual aids to avoid trying to remember large chunks of text or lots of terminology.

According to data published by the National Education Union (NEU) and recently conducted research findings of the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) based at University College, London, class sizes in all types of state schools are amongst the highest they have been since 1996. Unsurprisingly, they are also amongst the highest in the EU. Just over 12% of secondary schools are being taught in classes of over 30 pupils. The government dismisses the argument that class size has any negative effects on quality of teaching or educational outcomes, however, thus also dismissing the day-to-day experience of teachers themselves.

Class size, or the ratio of pupils to teachers, raises all sorts of issues. Not least of these is the health and safety standards in Science labs designed to accommodate experimental work in Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Design and Technology. Overcrowded teaching areas increase the risk of serious injury to pupils and teachers alike, particularly in situations where the teacher has to cope with difficult pupils.

Class size also impacts on the teacher’s personal interaction with pupils. Instead of personal attention given to each individual, the teacher is forced to resort to an out-of-date, less chalk-and-talk lesson, where individual work correction and group work becomes impractical. These old methods lose pupil’s attention fast, only serving to produce results such as boredom, resentment. For some it may even lay a path to expulsion. It is a profoundly dispiriting atmosphere to work in.

Overcrowding obviously reduces the time spent on productive work. Desks and chairs have to be rearranged before lessons can be brought to some kind of order, bags and coats have to be stored under desks – there are not usually not enough (if any) pegs to hang coats on. Time is lost when a lot of children have to do this all at once and it does not make for the safest, or most encouraging, environment to learn in.

All of this has a negative effect on progression from GCSE to A level. The most affected are inner-city schools and those living in deprived areas. None of this is “unforeseen consequence”. No costly research is needed to come to such conclusions. Parents, teachers and pupils alike all know it. Yet still the government flatly denies anything is wrong at all.

Class size is increasing at a time when schools when schools are having difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff, whilst also suffering from budget cuts. 94% of primary schools have lost over £250 per pupil, and 95% of secondary schools £340. There is little chance that the situation will materially improve in the short or medium term. Government departments are distracted by their lack of preparation for Brexit, to say nothing of the damage being done whilst the austerity policies work their way through society. There remain few opportunities for extra cash to make any real difference – schools are competing with the NHS, the police and all the other social services.

Michael Gove has recently called for an end to the charitable status held by private and public schools, the sector which along with grammar schools produces a very high percentage of our linguists, scientists and government officials. More and more parents are removing children from mainstream education – at least because of the overcrowding in local schools. The minister’s case for the creation of a level playing field is unlikely to be attained in a climate of such resource imbalance.

Our society, and in particular the generation entering the workforce within the next five years, can look forward to few opportunities for social mobility. Too many will leave school ill-equipped to face the challenges of rapid social and technological change.

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