How STEM outreach benefits young people, engineers – and society itself

Joseph Flaig

STEM ambassadors are needed to nurture the next generation of engineers (Credit: Primary Engineer)
STEM ambassadors are needed to nurture the next generation of engineers (Credit: Primary Engineer)

Growing up, Tosin Shodeyi saw little interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects among his classmates. “Specifically engineering, I didn’t really feel like it was talked about a lot at my school,” he says.

“If it wasn't for the fact that my granddad was an engineer, I don't think I would have even heard about engineering.”

Now 23, Shodeyi is determined to give today’s pupils a different experience. He does so as both a STEM ambassador and a school governor at Sheringham Primary School in Newham, London, not far from where he grew up in Ilford.

“Students are the future of the community,” he says. “I wanted to be in a local school and be able to promote STEM… give my expertise where I’m able.”

Shodeyi is one of thousands of engineers who give up their time to nurture the next generation. The demand for new engineers is increasingly urgent – a 2022 survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that half (49%) of engineering and technology businesses struggle to recruit skilled candidates. Combined with an ageing workforce and the scale of challenges such as net zero, we need as many young people to consider engineering careers as possible.

‘It just takes one person’

Now working as a project engineer in the nuclear industry for AtkinsRéalis, Shodeyi’s determination to become a STEM ambassador was solidified at university, where – other than international students – there were only about three black students and five women out of 200 students on his mechanical engineering course.

“It wasn’t enough,” he says, so he set out to change things. Working with an organisation called With Insight, he mentored black A-level students to help them succeed in applications to Russell Group universities. In schools, he explains what a career in engineering might be like, including the opportunities for career progression, the ability to make a difference on sustainability projects, and the fulfilling mix of teamwork and independence.

Tosin Shodeyi

Tosin Shodeyi

Speaking to a group of pupils in Hackney, many from ethnic minority backgrounds, Shodeyi says they were “surprised” to learn he was an engineer.

“Just from having that conversation, I hope that they realise how cool industry and engineering can be,” he says. “Sometimes it just takes one person, someone who looks like you to be in a position, for you to see yourself in it as well.”

‘What would you do?’

As well as understanding and addressing workforce imbalances in gender and race, STEM ambassadors should also consider the diversity of behaviours, attitudes and skillsets among pupils, says Susan Scurlock, chief executive and founder of not-for-profit organisation Primary Engineer.

“We shouldn't prescribe what we think children should or shouldn't do in the sense of what their career pathways should be,” she says. “I think it's important that they know what's on our doorstep, industry-wise.”

Started in 2005, the IMechE strategic partner does STEM outreach work across the UK. It operates in three ways: training teachers to deliver practical activities in the classroom, as well as inviting engineers to those sessions and providing resources; running school competitions, such as “If you were an engineer, what would you do?”; and providing qualifications and research, helping teachers embed engineering into the curriculum and sharing findings from the wide-ranging activities.

Not all the school pupils Primary Engineer works with will become engineers, says Scurlock, but it is nonetheless important to explain what they do and why they are important – especially when considering challenges such as net zero. “In industry, you need a lot of people to work alongside engineers,” she says. “We're talking to everybody about what the opportunities are, and how they can get involved.”

‘It doesn’t matter what background they are from’

Asked what she would say to engineers who are not taking part in STEM outreach, Scurlock’s answer is simple: “Why are you not? What are you doing that is better than inspiring children with the kinds of things that you do?”

It is easier than ever to help out, she says, thanks to the free resources and guidance provided by organisations such as Primary Engineer, which links engineers with schools and activities. “You don't even have to go figure out what to do!”

Employers also get “a great deal out of it,” she adds, thanks to the sense of pride instilled in engineers who take part. It can also make an important contribution to corporate social responsibility.

Shodeyi agrees. “You're going out there and being able to present what you do for your work. I think that helps with your own development as well,” he says.

“It's very rewarding knowing what I'm doing could potentially encourage someone to become an engineer. I think that's my main purpose. I want someone to feel like it doesn't matter what background they are from – they can become an engineer.”

Want to take part?

Here are five ways you can get involved:

  1. Register as a STEM ambassador via STEM Learning  
  2. Contact your IMechE regional education officer
  3. Volunteer for Primary Engineer
  4. Join STEMazing to boost female representation in engineering
  5. Become a school governor or trustee

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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