STEM skills in any career

Does studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) at school, college or university mean you can only do STEM for the rest of your life? Can you only do that bit of STEM that you’ve been taught for the rest of your life? The answer to that is a huge, fat no!

Photos of chickens, beer, a microphone and a car to indicate the range of careers STEM skills can lead to

I am an engineer that works in education. And I know a physicist who is a medical engineer, a chemist who is a clothes designer, a product designer who is Chinese translator, a biologist who work at the Department for Work and Pensions and a mathematician that is a stand-up comedian.

The variety of jobs and roles you can take on with STEM qualifications are numerous and to show you how varied life can be with a STEM starting block I’m going to tell you a bit about the people I met on my degree and where they are now, 20 years later. These are some of the stories from just one degree, at one time, in one small section of STEM.

Cars, beers and chicken coops

The group of girls I bonded with on day one of my course (and occasionally got in trouble with) are all currently working in engineering, and actually all for car companies as the lead in something.

Nicola now works for Ford in Australia, while Hannah, Lee and Caroline work in the Midlands. Caroline is currently a chief roof engineer, leading the team of engineers that design and create different tops for cars. She used to be the chief engineer for boot-closing mechanisms but got promoted!

Also on my course was James, a mature student (in years only). He came on to our course after doing an engineering apprenticeship at a beer manufacturer in Essex. After graduation he went to work for an international manufacturer within their engineering department but has subsequently been in charge of their sales team in SW England and now works in their marketing department. He’s the link between the complex technicalities of their new products and how this is depicted to consumers in an easy-to-understand way.

Aled and Simon also studied engineering alongside the rest of us. Aled went to work at Dyson straight from university and had a good number of years in their engineering design team until he moved on to a design agency. Simon took a different route – he went on to do a Masters at the Royal College of Art where he met two other students and between them they set up Omlet, a company that started out designing cool-looking chicken coops for small back gardens, so people can have fresh eggs in the morning. It’s now a company with a presence in nine countries and makes pens for all kinds of small animals.

Twenty years of talking

And then there’s me. I have never worked in engineering or for an engineering company, I have spent my entire career in education doing jobs I never knew existed when I was at school, or even when I was at university.

I’ve pretty much spent the last 20 years talking! Talking in a variety of ways to help educators, engineers, scientists and industry communicate what people in STEM jobs do, what STEM companies do and why there are so many opportunities for people with an interest in these subjects. A place for everyone to find their niche and utilise their own personal skill sets effectively.

None of us would be able to do any of the above jobs without the skills we learnt from studying STEM subjects. I don’t just mean the subject knowledge bits; I mean the essential, transferable skills that can be used by anyone in any role in any industry but that are developed, enhanced and perfected when studying STEM. Transferable skills called communication, problem-solving, teamwork and project management.

Solving problems all over the place

Studying STEM, no matter what type, you rarely work completely on your own – experiments, practicals, observations – you’re with other people sharing ideas and learning from each other. The only way to make that work is through good communication. You have to be able to articulate what you’re thinking and your ideas, but you also have to be able to critique someone else’s ideas while still maintaining a good working relationship – that’s hard!

Problem-solving is a vital skill that gets developed quickly if you study STEM subjects. And problem-solving skills are essential in everyday life, not just in your work.

Caroline uses her problem-solving skills to work out how best to include a sunroof in the car roof that won’t leak, is secure and doesn’t impact the safety of the car.

I’ve used problem-solving to help my friend get into her locked car at a service station halfway down the M1 with a hockey stick. No, not breaking the window – the hockey stick went through the sunroof, hooked the end over the window handle to slowly wind the window down.

You’ll never work alone

As I said above, you rarely work alone in STEM, so team-working skills are some of the first you develop. How to use each other’s strengths is essential when you’re experimenting, designing, creating or solving problems. Learning from each other and sharing the workload.

It’s not a joke when they say two heads are better than one; five heads are better than two. And especially if your team has a set of diverse backgrounds – you’ve got a group with so many different ideas and viewpoints that the only choice is to find the compromise, and that compromise is likely to be the best option for whatever you are working on.

And project management. It sounds huge. It is. It’s a career in itself. But applying project management skills to what you do in STEM is standard operating procedure. Breaking your task down into achievable chunks to get it done in time and in the best way, allocating those tasks to the right people and working out your critical path (the set of tasks that will delay or fail you) are critical aspects of any job you will ever do.

So if you’re told that studying STEM leaves you with very few options, or a set of very specific skills only relevant to a small set of jobs show them this blog and point out that if you study STEM, there isn’t just one fixed path to follow, there are many options open to you.

In fact, I’d say STEM is actually better described as a superior pair of walking boots that means you can take any number of paths, trails or routes in front of you and even change to a different path if you feel like it.

Dr Kerry Jaine Baker is Strategic Initiatives Lead at STEM Learning

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