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updated 6:23 AM BST, Jul 24, 2014
Technology and life sciences news from the Cambridge cluster

How Google can really help improve STEM teaching in the UK

Peter Barron, Google's head of external relations. Pic credit US Mission GenevaPeter Barron, Google's head of external relations, was in Cambridge on Tuesday night outlining the search giant’s blueprint to improve science and technology education in the UK.

Giving a talk to Cambridge Network entitled ‘The importance of STEM education,’ Barron argues that while the UK technology industries have recorded significant success and growth over the past decade, businesses, including his own, have been increasingly troubled by a shortage of scientific and engineering skills.

In particular, companies seeking computing engineers have found their recruitment efforts are increasingly hobbled by a shortage of young people who have the necessary basic skills to succeed in the industry.

In December 2011, an Ofsted report into the state of Information Communication Technology (ICT) education found that just over a third of secondary schools taught the subject to a level that was either 'good' or 'outstanding' and that teachers had only limited experience in teaching programming languages.

Meanwhile, a 2009 report about the employability of graduates found that only 12 per cent of graduates on vocational computer game design courses had found employment within six months of leaving university. Computing companies seeking to grow in this region and elsewhere are therefore finding their efforts increasingly curtailed by these fundamental educational problems.

According to Barron, Google is taking this problem seriously and appears to be actively seeking a solution to it. In his talk, he outlined the company's three pronged strategy to try to rectify the problem.

Google wants to excite and inspire children at a younger age by organising competitions and programmes that create passionate interest in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The company plans to support teachers by developing their programming knowledge via schemes like Computer Science for High Schools. It also intends to use its role as an influential multinational organisation to speak out on the issue more widely in an attempt to give the cause of STEM education a stronger platform within the media.

This strategy could well have a positive effect on STEM education in a number of ways. In the case of exciting and inspiring children to enjoy science subjects, providing programmes like the YouTube Space Lab competition will pique interest in the cooler aspects of science while encouraging aspirations to study the subject.

Supporting teachers who are ill equipped to teach programming yet face a change in the curriculum through Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s planned reforms could be important in bridging the knowledge gap. And speaking out as a company, rather than as lone wolf individuals, on matters involving education adds gravitas to its message.

The recent plea by Google executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, to educationalists to try and close the gap that has emerged between the arts and sciences and allow creative industries to benefit from technological advancement is a great example of how a company can breathe fresh air into a stultifying debate.

Another one is the Cambridge-developed Raspberry Pi, showcased at the event by Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder, Robert Mullins. This ARM-powered £15 ‘disposable computer’ aims to get children and schools involved with the nuts and bolts of coding in much the same way as the BBC Micro did in the 1980’s.

Yet despite these positive steps, it is hard not to feel that Google's policy fails to really address one, if not the fundamental problem in STEM education, which is the quality of teachers who both enter and operate in those fields. 

Obviously as the general standard of education in this area improves so will the calibre of the teaching staff, but there is a ‘chicken and egg’ element to getting the whole thing kickstarted.

But as things stand, while technology companies complain about a lack of top quality available talent, education establishments have a near impossible task in recruiting graduates with strong scientific credentials to become top class teachers because the technology companies can hoover them up on top pay.

When graduate scientists, engineers and mathematicians are faced with a choice of starting on £27,000 a year as a qualified teacher in London or working as a software engineer at Google which offers an average salary of £45,000 according to Glassdoor.com, the choice for many will be straightforward. This means that available STEM teaching roles will never go to the brightest and best but will instead reside firmly in the hands of the 'rest'.

The result of this is that science teaching in Britain will constantly struggle to recruit the kind of teachers who can improve results and increase interest in the class room, a crucial indicator to future success and interest in pupils.

According to a November 2010 White Paper on Education, a high performing teacher – one who usually commands a strong knowledge of their subject matter – increases a student's percentile by up to 40 points. With all the talent elsewhere, the likelihood is that STEM subject teachers will fall into the category of 'low performing' who reduce their pupils average performance by 13 percentile points.

Therefore, the short term resource problem cited by Peter Barron will not be solved by projects, press releases and small scale support mechanisms alone, but by the active distribution of talented scientists, technologists and coders into the education system. Of course some will say that businesses are not responsible for education and that the state should be seeking to resolve it – a suggestion to deploy Google engineers in schools was dismissed last night by Barron – but there are ways that companies can easily invest to assist the state framework without entangling themselves in the wider bureaucracy.

As an example, Google could upgrade its silver membership with Teach First, an education charity which offers the best graduates an opportunity to teach before undertaking a career, to a full partnership and help plug it's shortfall in science graduates by allowing prospective engineers to teach before training.

By doing so, they could retain the cream of the crop for themselves whilst actively contributing to teaching STEM subjects and inspiring youngsters across the social spectrum to undertake them.

Google's policy towards STEM subjects has to be seen as a commendable start. But for it to make a real impact in the area it needs to attempt to address the structural problems within the system rather than work around them.