The UK Commission for Employment & Skills says a shortage of applicants with relevant skills and experience means employers struggle to fill 43 per cent of current STEM vacancies. The reasons for this shortfall are complex but part of the problem is thought to be a pipeline issue – aspirations must be raised in children at a much younger age to empower them to go on and study STEM subjects at university.
In its STEM Strategy for Education and Training, the Scottish Government targets encouraging children and young people’s interest in and enthusiasm for STEM subjects; and tackling gender imbalances and inequities relating to race, disability, deprivation and geography. It too highlights early years’ education as a crucial foundation for an interest in STEM subjects and the development of relevant skills, rooted in children’s natural curiosity and inventiveness.
These are familiar themes for Yashasvi Raj, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, whose own outreach experiences inspired him to become the founder and president of Hands-On! a STEM outreach society.
“One thing that is always difficult, is bridging that gap to make STEM accessible to young kids,” Yashas says. “Especially when the subjects can be elusive and really challenging. I mean, math is not intuitive for a lot of kids, so if you have any kind of obstacle in their way, you’re writing off a huge chunk of people who could maybe have a wonderful career or passion for STEM but lose interest immediately.
“I’m very lucky in that I have known I wanted to do mechanical engineering for 10 years now. I live in Lexington, a suburb of Boston, 20 minutes away from MIT and Harvard. These large educational institutions make it a big part of their programme to facilitate outreach activities for the greater Boston area and when I was younger, I joined those activities. That’s what really started my own passion for engineering and for science.”
Yashas literally found his own spark of inspiration at an outreach workshop: “The mentor left me and one other kid in a room with a nine-volt battery and an LED… I was 10, right, so of course the first thing I did was took the LED, took the battery, and touched them together. It flashed bright blue but then died quickly and I was like, ‘well, that’s super cool’.
“So I try again but it doesn’t work. It’s burned out. I was terrified. I thought I just broke this, like, $100 piece of science kit. Turns out you can get 500 for a dollar, right? But my earliest memory when it comes to STEM is literally that spark! I was very fortunate. It wasn’t only that sort of hands-on activity; outreach also fostered this feeling of community and really built an environment that encouraged freeform learning and creativity.”
Having benefited from STEM outreach himself, Yashas then began to support its teaching. While still in high school, he went on a series of international workshops with the MIT outreach team running STEM demonstrations for children in China, India, Italy and Spain.
One of the simplest outreach exercises, which Yashas still uses to inspire children today, is building and launching a bottle rocket made from an empty fizzy drinks bottle filled with compressed air.
A video from one of his international workshops, encapsulates the power of outreach and everything the Hands-On! society now aims to achieve. A group of children sits expectantly in front of a small bottle rocket rig. Tension builds while an unseen bicycle pump gradually increases the pressure in the system. Suddenly, the bottle rocket they helped to build shoots high into the air. Children leap excitedly to their feet. Most of them run after the rocket to see where it will land. One inquisitive child ignores the fuss, preferring to focus on the launching rig. Curiosity has clearly been piqued in at least one young mind…
“It’s just remarkable,” says Yashas. “I specifically tried to go to schools that would never usually have this opportunity – underfunded government schools or orphanages in villages that cater to tribal students. What’s amazing about bottle rockets is everyone loves them. No matter what age, no matter what language they speak, it’s so easy to get someone excited about something exploding and launching into the air. You can see them high fiving and celebrating – it just sums up what we do. There’s this visceral reaction, then you see this one kid, he’s curious, he just wants to see what’s happened.
“These students hadn’t seen anything like this, but guaranteed, if you do the same thing halfway around the world, you’ll get a very similar reaction. You can see the spark being lit and all you’ve got to do is have the framework to foster that. That’s one of the hardest things though – making sure that spark doesn’t get put out by societal pressure; by people saying to them, like, you can’t do this. It isn’t for you.”
Yashas started his mechanical engineering degree in Edinburgh at the end of 2019. Within six months, Covid-19 restrictions first confined students to quarters, then sent them home to continue their education remotely.
It was not the student lifestyle he had anticipated: “Coming in to my third year, I hadn’t been to a single student society, hadn’t really met my peers – it just didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to find a way to give back and actually make my own impact. Starting Hands-On! was just the way that I thought I could do that.”
Borne of all his own outreach experiences, Yashas has specifically established the society to empower university students to inspire the next generation and make STEM subjects more accessible and less intimidating. It was this that first prompted Kilian Blair-Fassl, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and now the society treasurer, to sign up.
“There is the often repeated, but still true, saying that through outreach we can inspire the next generation,” Kilian observes. “More than that, I want to awaken a curiosity in them to understand how our world functions and why things are the way they are, because curiosity is far more of a driving force. However achieved, a more diverse set of approaches to any problem will undoubtedly lead to better solutions to the problems of our world, which is what humanity needs if we are to survive and thrive.”
Elliot Johnson-Hall, a fourth-year anatomy and developmental biology student, and the society’s secretary, agrees: “Raising the aspirations of young people, so they pursue STEM subjects, is more important than ever in solving a variety of scientific problems from the climate crisis to antibiotic resistance.
“As a Widening Participation student, I wish I’d had access to more schemes like this when I was at school. My particular STEM specialism is pretty niche. There’s not really many chances to learn about anatomy in school, due to a lack of resources and specialist knowledge. I hope to design and manufacture 3D printed bones to allow pupils to investigate osteology for themselves. Biomedical sciences are often seen as a back-up plan for people who aren’t successful in entry to medicine; but they are so much richer than this – I’d love to promote them at school level.”
Hands-On! focus on designing and facilitating interactive practical workshops for local schools, using affordable and environmentally sustainable materials. They also plan to publish activities for use as educational material around the world.
“What I’m trying to do is make STEM more accessible to a younger audience by getting them to engage in a practical and physical way with abstract concepts that they’ve maybe only seen in their textbooks,” Yashas says.
“It’s really important to me that we show diversity and representation going into a school. I don’t want there to be any barriers for accessibility to STEM so the presence of an equal representative and equal gender representation is super important. That’s so everyone feels comfortable and can see that this is possible for them. I want the girls to see someone who is five or 10 years older that they can envision themself being. That’s unique about student-run outreach – it’s a whole different dynamic. It’s much more easy for a student to bridge that gap so children can see themselves being at that stage. That’s a very powerful and underutilized part of outreach.”
Just eight months in, Hands-On! has built up an initial network of 25 student members and already established a range of outreach partnerships.
Earlier this year, the society was commissioned by STMicroelectronics, Europe’s largest semiconductor manufacturer, to develop practical activities to teach primary schoolchildren the basics of electronic circuits and components.
They’re also linking up with Primary Engineer, a nationwide ‘STEM by stealth’ initiative, to offer hands-on activities and mentorship to children at local primary schools.
On campus, the society is developing links with IntoUniversity, a groundbreaking widening participation collaboration that provides educational support, and raises university aspirations, in disadvantaged children aged 7+. Hands-On! members helped with Easter holiday STEM revision sessions and also have opportunities to sign up to mentor young people from Edinburgh’s Craigmillar area.
They also work closely with the award-winning uCreate Makerspace, a technology and creativity hub at the University’s Main Library, that provides practical support including equipment, storage and meeting space. Through the Repair Café, members help promote sustainable consumption, working with the Edinburgh community to fix and refurbish items that might otherwise be unnecessarily thrown away and end up in landfill.
Mike Boyd, uCreate Makerspace Manager, has been instrumental in supporting Hands-On! He believes in the benefits the society can offer: “STEM outreach is a great way to generate enthusiasm and engagement in science, both in a new generation of prospective students and in the wider community in and around Edinburgh.
“Yashas instantly impressed me with his enthusiasm to set up a new society focused on providing activities to engage newcomers to the STEM subjects. His positivity, dynamism and drive were contagious, and left me as enthused as to the potential of his new society as it did the members. It has been a delight to be able to support the society as it has grown and I’m excited to see how it continues its growth and development this coming year.
“At uCreate, we’re passionate about equipping people with the skills to make a material change to the world around them, and knowledge and training in STEM subjects are a key aspect to this goal. Beyond this, the opportunities it can provide for students to engage with the wider city of Edinburgh can have a hugely positive impact for both students and those they work with.”
Yashas’ agrees and has the future very much in mind: “I graduate this year, so it’s really my goal to lay the groundwork such that this still succeeds long term.
“I want to recruit a lot more engaged, active and enthusiastic members and bring in a framework of sustainability and growth. It’s very important to me that there is a future for this, and I think the best way for that to happen is to have a very close relationship with the University.
“I also want to open this up to the greater Edinburgh community and have a place where lifelong learners, makers, STEM enthusiasts and people who are just curious about how the world works, get together and work on projects, talk about their life experiences, and encourage generational learning.
“That really resonated with me when I was a kid – being able to interact with people who’ve spent their entire career in STEM. There’s just something very infectious about being around passionate people.”
Photography: Yashasvi Raj/Kilian Blair-Fassl/Hands-On!