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Connecting women and opportunity

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Linking STEM to work and jobs at an early age: Why young people need to get up to speed with maths – Jackie Freeborn, Co-founder of The work-wise Foundation


Jackie Freeborn is co-founder of The work-wise Foundation, Chair for Women in Business at Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber of Commerce and Managing Director Skin Care Yorkshire Ltd. work-wise is an employer inspired and led initiative for engineering, manufacturing and related sectors to support the development of young people so they have the knowledge, skills, aptitude and opportunities for employment within the Sheffield City Region. 

Jackie Freeborn
Jackie Freeborn

“…Spend a little time to think about the maths connection in whatever you do and it will be there somewhere…”

The skills dilemma

Last year EngineeringUK issued a dire warning that Britain has a shortfall of about 55,000 people with engineering skills; the mismatch between supply and demand across STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) not only affects economic prosperity it hinders access to young people who are the key to solving the skills dilemma.

But STEM isn’t important solely for the engineering sector, STEM forms the backbone of almost everything in our lives, we use science, technology, engineering and maths in almost all aspects of life, working, professional, family and social. Everything is designed, created, produced, manufactured and used and in the process uses one or more STEM components.

We are currently working with a primary school that has taken the bold and imaginative step of offering STEM lessons to all of their children from 5 to 11 years old. This is because the head teacher had the foresight to see that as our world develops, STEM becomes more relevant for a successful, rewarding and enjoyable life, regardless of any sector we work in – arts, music, farming, retail, catering, engineering, medical, manufacturing, professional to name just a few.

Maths is like Marmite

The children have quickly grasped the STEM concept and amazingly are making the connection with what they are learning in school to the outside world, in particular maths. Now maths is a little like Marmite, people and especially children tend to like it and be very interested in it or hate it and just tolerate or avoid it. Yet maths us so important in everything we do – if STEM is the backbone of our world then maths has to be the spinal nerve that runs through it. And the children are getting this and are staring to understand just how relevant maths is to their world.

They used their imagination to think of all the ways we use maths and this ranged from making cars and planes, to counting heartbeats to ensure our bodies are working right, to understanding how many litres of blood there is our bodies, to telling time, measuring speed, heights of buildings, saving up to buy toys and games, following recipes to ensure that the cake mix is just right – the list is endless. Spend a little time to think about the maths connection in whatever you do and it will be there somewhere.

Linking STEM to work and jobs at an early age

What’s happening is that the children are taking more interest in learning maths because they can understand why they need it. They can see how having mathematical ability will help them in school and eventually in work.

It is likely that many of these children will not go on to university, the head recognises this, and she is raising their aspiration levels by linking learning, particularly STEM to work and jobs at an early age. Skilled labour will be in even greater demand when these children leave school and maths is a fundamental must whether going to university or choosing more practical apprenticeship routes.

Co-founding The work-wise Foundation

Six years ago along with I, along with a few other dedicated people, I co-founded The work-wise Foundation, with local employers who were increasingly worried and frustrated that young people leave school without the skills, knowledge attributes and attitudes for work, particularly in STEM related sectors. They found that young people had little understanding of the etiquette for work – in effect they were not work ready and ‘work-wise’, hence our name – The work-wise Foundation.

We formed a collective of local businesses committed to offering schools access to employers to help students prepare for the transition from education into work, developing essential employability skills and encouraging students to achieve the best grades they possibly could, but especially in maths to alleviate the need for what employers referred to as remedial maths in the workplace. They found that even though young people had the correct grades, they were unable to apply maths in the working environment, because they had just been taught maths, not its useful and essential application.

Get up to Speed with Engineering and Manufacturing

Bloodhound SSCOne of the largest events we do is our annual interactive STEM careers fayre. It is funded exclusively by the private sector, despite best efforts to attract sponsorship to co-finance with statutory provision we have never been successful. Now in its 6th year, Get Up To Speed with Engineering and Manufacturing was held at Magna Science and Adventure Centre in Sheffield on 20th April 2016.

The people who joined us were from age 7 to 77 – everyone was welcome. It was a free event open to the public as well as industry, schools, parents, teachers, young people aiming to excite, inform and encourage children to see the importance and of STEM in our every day lives, for them to explore the plethora of jobs and careers in the sector.

We had attractions such as mind controlled copters, virtual welding, virtual reality driving and sports as well as our star attraction, Bloodhound, the supersonic vehicle which aims to reach 1,000mph and beat the land speed record later this year. Competitions, Made in Sheffield ice cream, the Innovation Challenge, Meet the Apprentice, a 10 x 10 metre Scalextric all added to the mix of seeing science, technology, engineering and particularly maths in action.

We need an education system that is about more than learning to pass exams

So I am full of admiration for the head teacher who sees that employer engagement in education, showing how learning is used in adult life, is so important. My frustration, which was one of the drivers for establishing The work-wise Foundation is that the system of education does seem to view this as important as teaching children how to pass exams. By failing to embed the translation of learning into its future application it will disadvantage our young people and this will affect future productivity and prosperity – ironically we will be using maths to count the cost of our inaction.

So I am asking you to take up the challenge to help children and young people understand the beauty and value of maths. Show them why it is so important. Explain when you are using maths. Be creative, be imaginative, design things, make music, build things, show them the value of money, make cakes, whatever it is that gets them excited about maths! It will be one of the most wonderful gifts you can give to help them achieve their full potential and realise their ambitions – wherever that takes them, as well as helping the UK address skill shortages and productivity.

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