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Inspiring to empower: how to solve the UK’s STEM skills gap

The Rolls-Royce Science Prize, an annual awards programme, is helping youngsters to pursue careers in science and technology. 

By New Statesman

When am I ever going to need to know this? It’s a popular retort fired back by disinterested students, but it’s one that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educators work hard to overcome. Rolls-Royce, a world-renowned technology organisation, is committed to inspiring the next generation of innovators and subsequently plugging the UK’s STEM skills gap. That’s why in 2014, Rolls-Royce set an ambitious global target to reach six million people through STEM education programmes and activities by 2020. But to make this vision a reality, they can’t act alone and will need the help of industry and government to inspire the next Frank Whittle or Marie Curie.

One of the ways they have started to help potential STEM students is by supporting teachers. The Rolls-Royce Science Prize, created in 2004, is an annual awards programme open to all UK schools and colleges designed to help teachers implement new and innovative ways of delivering STEM education. Crucially, the Science Prize enables teachers to create a project that meets a specific need, which can encompass any area of science or the practical application of maths. It is designed to support teachers who are bringing STEM subjects to life for our country’s future innovators. Rolls-Royce want the next generation to be inspired by being empowered with their knowledge as well as appreciating not just what something is, but how it works and why it exists as well.

From thousands of applications, up to 60 Science Prize entries are awareded a Special Merit Award worth £1,000 to help them complete their project. The Special Meric Award winning entries then go on to potentially recieve a further £5,000 to further develop their project venures. Over 20,000 applications have been received in the last decade and nearly £1.5 million has been given out in prize money to over 600 schools. But it isn’t just financial support, finalist schools and colleges are also given the support of a Rolls-Royce specialist mentor to help implement their proposals as outlined in their action plan.

Rani Gill, Rolls-Royce’s education outreach manager, says that the idea behind launching the Science Prize was to reach more people by helping teachers create a “ripple effect”. She explains: “It’s like dropping a pebble into water. From that initial impact you get the ripple effect and it spreads out. So if the Science Prize can help to get more students interested in STEM, in turn that means that more people might pursue STEM careers and might go onto radically change the world we live in. Particularly for schools and colleges in socio-economically challenged areas, we’re offering an opportunity that might not have been there before.”

Indeed, it is foresight which themes much of Rolls-Royce’s overarching mission. “This next generation,” Gill adds, “needs to know about the difficulties society might face and how to overcome them.” Rolls-Royce cites improving energy production, power efficiency and decarbonisation among priority targets for the company and indeed for the UK as a whole.

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Dispelling certain myths about STEM, Gill recognises, will be central to greater uptake of university courses and apprenticeships. She says: “Addressing the matter of diversity early on is hugely important. It is vital that we have a larger pool of talented students considering STEM subjects rather than having individuals who would otherwise self-select themselves out of the talent pipeline. Apprenticeships can attract individuals from all walks of life.”

Rolls-Royce have joined the Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network (ADCN) and through the ADCN has made a number of public pledges to better diversity in our apprentice cohort. Rolls-Royce are focusing on encouraging more women into STEM subjects and have set aims such as the challenge to double the number of girls currently on their work experience programme, with the goal of a 50/50 gender split.

Ultimately, the UK has a duty to ensure that its skills pipeline can keep up with the pace of demand. Rolls-Royce view investment in schemes such as the Science Prize as not only useful but entirely necessary. With 111 years’ worth of experience and expertise behind them, they have always pioneered technology and thoughts whether, across land, in the air and through the seas. And that is their message to the next generation: who needs superpowers, when you can make turbines and engines like theirs?

The Rolls-Royce Science Prize will be open for new entries in September. For more information, please click here.