By Tom Conradi, UK Editorial Board

STEM subjects are the basis for all the advances our society has made in the last few hundred years. From the Large Hadron Collider to keyhole surgery science has progressed massively since the Industrial Revolution, and this is partly due to the nature of scientific discovery: the more we discover, the more there is to know and study. As a result, there are an increasing number of jobs involving STEM subjects and there are an increasing number of people going into STEM-related jobs.

“The more we discover, the more there is to know and study”

I think that I have always been interested in why things are the way they are, and I’m sure most young children are the same. They are always asking ‘Why?’ and for me from a young age, the subject of Space and the planets was fascinating. I wanted to know as much as I could about each aspect of the ‘Final Frontier’. We were never taught about space in as much depth as I wanted to go into at primary school, so most of my ‘research’ came from books that I had bought, and from documentaries. Brian Cox certainly has a lot to answer for!

“Brian Cox certainly has a lot to answer for!” – Popular science presenter Brian Cox talks to young people at the EuroScience Open Forum 2016 ©ESOF

Science at primary school: “We would do the experiment ourselves, for no other reason than to do it”

At primary school our experience of science was restricted to circuits and candles, and maybe dropping a few Mentos into a bottle of Coca-Cola. Most of the time, the experiment was shown to us and then we would do it ourselves, for no other reason than to do it; there was no sense of finding out why it happened, it just did and no other explanation was offered. This is not the fault of the teachers; it was because of a restriction of space, resources, health and safety and the specialised knowledge of the teachers.  Due to the restrictions of the curriculum, those who were interested and who wanted to find out more had to do so off their own back, developing their own personal areas of interest in the process. Maths was, obviously, much more important in primary school than science, and I believe this is why the focus on science was less. The purpose of a primary school is to provide the base level of knowledge students can build upon in secondary school. Despite this, everyone always enjoyed the experiments that we did and I think that they were interested in science but the incentive wasn’t there to read around the subject and the curriculum did not provide time for further questioning and investigation. Maths on the other hand was a compulsory subject that many people found difficult. I believe that this is why so many people disliked maths more than they disliked the sciences: because science in primary school was much more practical and at the time we didn’t realise we were applying our maths skills (measuring, graph drawing etc), therefore we found it more fun.

Science at secondary school: “I felt that science now had a purpose: it explained the world around me”

At secondary school, the science became more structured and the ethos was much more focused on explaining why things happen and occur. As a result the experiments serve to allow for investigation or to prove a hypothesis rather than merely providing an activity for the afternoon. Through doing this, I felt that science now had a purpose: it explained the world around me. This enabled me to explore other areas of science that I had not considered before, Chemistry is an example. Also, Maths became a lot more complex and interesting which added an extra dimension to the subject as it enabled me to find solutions to, and explain, problems I had never even thought of before.

Up next: Thinking about university course choices

The most important thing that influences me and the way I view STEM subjects at the moment is probably the way that they are represented in films and on television programmes. However as I am approaching A-Level and University course choices, I am realising that that is not an accurate representation of these jobs. There is a big difference between seeing some actors dressed as doctors run around a set acting stressed, and an actual situation where a patient may die. This may be due to the fact that I now have researched the medical careers in more depth and so have a greater understanding of the pressures and complications of the workplace. As I hope to become a neurosurgeon, I am aware that there are huge risks with most aspects of the job, and these were risks that I wasn’t aware of when I was younger.

Science and girls

In my opinion, this would not necessarily be any different for a girl; however, they may feel more pressured to take a less leading role in the world of STEM. For example, there is still the view of a nurse being female and a surgeon being a man, which is becoming more and more untrue. Also, some girls, if not most, would see these stereotypes as a challenge. I have a friend from primary school that would see this as a chance to show everyone how they’re all wrong! Conversely, these stereotypes wouldn’t be able to be broken if they were still the truth; there must be an increasing number of females with careers that are highly placed within the STEM community, which is a move in the right direction already, and I believe that females will have an increasingly more prominent role in STEM careers than they have already.

“These stereotypes wouldn’t be able to be broken if they were still the truth”

No matter what career people end up doing, STEM subjects will be relevant in all aspects of life, from the structural integrity of the house they live in to the household appliances they use daily. I believe science and technology will advance massively in the future and this will hopefully lead to the removal of the image of scientists being ‘nerds’, thus encouraging more people to become involved in STEM areas and advance our knowledge even further. This is why I am drawn to STEM subjects: the prospect of enhancing our experience of life.