Why Spain needs businesses for STEM education

 La Vanguardia’s print edition on 12th December painted an alarming picture of the state of learning in Spain. The national daily’s headline read: “Spanish Education Stagnates In Mediocrity,” and the online story should be the cause for even more concern for STEM educators, with the line: “Nine-year-old students – worse than the European average for reading, mathematics and science.”

Some worrying trends

The news story was taken from the recently published TIMSS 2011 (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) report from the International Association For The Evaluation Of Educational Achievement (AEI), which represents a real challenge for educators in Spain. The study shows that Spain is below the European Union average for maths achievement and almost bottom of the list for European countries in sciences.

The under-performance of Spain’s nine-year-olds reflects a wider malaise in the country’s education system. The talk these days is of “Generación Ni trabajo Ni estudios” (“Generation No work, No studies”) – a perceived generation of jobless school leavers without formal qualifications, in a country that has a high rate of youth unemployment. 

Lessons from the front line

David Atzet i Rovira is the Director at the SINS Sant Joan de Vilatorrada school near Barcelona, where he also teaches technology and maths. He knows all about Generación Ni Ni and has strong views about how Spain should encourage students into passing exams, particularly in science and technology. In his opinion: “we need to be more creative with solutions in education, including better involvement with the kids. We need to encourage, encourage and encourage them,” he says.

In David’s case, part of that encouragement is his school’s involvement in the inGenious programme – as a Pilot Centre. He is also enthusiastic about involving local businesses in STEM education and there are already some initiatives taking place with large organisations, such as power company Endesa. Another example is the Parc Scientific Barcelona research centre, which holds workshops for schools five or six times a year.

“But these initiatives are very irregular and not part of an ongoing programme,” comments David. “What’s more, they do not involve the small and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of the Spanish economy,” he adds.

Coordination needed to involve business

This is a point echoed by Miguel Soler, Vice-President of education, employment and training for Spain’s main opposition political party in Valencia, who comments: “Small and medium-sized businesses are the commercial base of this country, and it’s important to get them involved in the field of education.” 

Guiding that involvement is a concern of Joana Artís, Director of the schools and businesses programme for FemCAT, an influential Catalan regional business association. She notes that: “What is needed is an umbrella organisation that facilitates relationships between schools and businesses.”

Lack of funds – but not commitment

Despite the perceived lack of a grand plan for encouraging STEM subjects, and business participation, there are many examples of local initiatives and enthusiastic teachers getting involved with them. 

Empar Simó and Nuría Lopez, who teach technology and science to 13 and 14 year olds at the Institut El Sui in Catalonia, had this to say about their experiences: “In our village, we have a good standard of education, but it's at risk of getting worse because of the economic crisis. We have been able to maintain this high standard thanks to the efforts of the teachers” 

Meanwhile, they also value industry as an educational partner. Empar comments: “In secondary schools, we need more collaboration between school and industry.” So what schemes are currently running in their region? 

“inGenious is one of them,” replies Empar. “We have also Projecte Prat de la Riba where students can visit some technology companies and study them, organized by the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and the Education Department of Catalonia. And Mercatec, which is an exhibition of science and technology projects from secondary schools. It's held every year. But this year, it has been harder to find financing for the project. We are trying to continue it, working together with the local university.”

Spanish business needs STEM 

There’s clearly a good case that more businesses – particularly smaller operations – should get involved in STEM education in Spain. But what’s in it for them? Why should these businesses want to get involved with projects such as inGenious, and with the teachers who champion STEM education?  

Josep Maria Noguera, Director of one such small business: Operaciones de Fundería Condals, a metal casting firm, had the following answer: “One of the motivations for companies to participate in educational projects is to discover talent – and encourage the development creators in place of mere users.” 

Francisco Moro, Manager of Creation of Networks at Telefonica, Spain’s national telecommunications giant, reinforces the seriousness of what is at stake when he says: “As technology experts, we identify with awakening young people’s interest in STEM careers and we strongly believe this interest is key for the future of the European economy.”