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The charity making life better by water

Bringing STEM to life on our canals and rivers

Britain is facing a technical skills shortage, with fewer and fewer young people choosing to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM). With British Science Week coming up this month, we thought we’d take a closer look at how our charity is playing its part to help address this alarming trend by inspiring the next generation to choose a career in the sciences.

Two workers looking down on a lock gate area at the canal

The shrinking talent pool in the STEM sector is thought to be costing the UK economy upwards of £1.5 billion a year, with an estimated shortfall of around 173,000 workers and an average of ten unfilled roles per business.

Studies show that pupils can become disillusioned with subjects like maths and physics at an early age, and our waterways may offer a solution. With countless STEM learning opportunities, from understanding biological habitats to calculating the physics of water management, our canals and rivers are a living, breathing classroom.

To capitalise on this and help to bridge the yawning skills gap, we recently implemented our very own STEM learning programme.

Pupils in a class doing a practical experiment

Former engineer and project lead, Salome Ash, picks up the story: “The STEM learning programme is an educational initiative, aimed primarily at secondary school pupils, with a focus on 11 to 14 year-olds. The idea is to showcase the work we do here at the Trust and demonstrate the massive variety of STEM activities involved in our work, from ecology to engineering.”

A key factor in this dearth of talent is lack of engagement in schools. Teachers don't always have the necessary educational tools to impart the real-world application of subjects like biology, maths or physics.

To help inspire young people and change their perceptions of STEM subjects, we've developed a raft of teaching resources for schools, from online workshops and informational videos (like the one above) to practical activities and site visits. All are designed to fit seamlessly with the existing curriculum, sparking students' imaginations and bringing the classroom to life.

As Salome tells us: “Sometimes it can be quite hard for teachers to show practical examples of the things they're teaching…but if we're able to run a workshop in school or take the class to one of our waterside locations, it's a tangible way for students to relate that theoretical content to something they can see and feel.”

The site visits are particularly popular, allowing students to see first-hand how STEM subjects apply to the everyday operations on our waterways, whether that's bank maintenance, wildlife conservation, or preserving our historic locks, bridges and boat lifts.

The STEM learning programme dovetails neatly with our various volunteer and work initiatives, which provide a stepping-stone for young people interested in a career on our waterways.

Annette Simpson, who works on the programme with Salome, explains: “There's obviously a big focus on careers, highlighting what it is our staff do and how students can get involved with the Trust through work experience, graduate programmes and apprenticeships.”

By engaging young people in this way, we're not only helping them develop new skills, but also bringing to life the important role canals have to play in the 21st century; encouraging the next generation to care for canals and creating clear pathways to a rewarding career on our network.

Working closely with schools and teachers, we hope to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and ecologists, plugging the skills gap and ensuring our precious canals and rivers are in safe hands for years to come.

Last Edited: 20 February 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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