Girls in tech, STEM

Closing the gap: Early engagement is critical in solving the STEM skills shortage

Girls in tech, STEM, skills shortage

By Natalia Pereldik, CEO and Co-Founder of Funexpected

The STEM skills shortage in the UK is a growing problem that more and more professionals are starting to pay attention to.

In a recent survey of 250 engineering professionals, conducted by MPA, 37 per cent named the skills shortage as having the most significant impact on their sector. This concern ranked higher than automation, new materials and data. Considering the close attention given to each of these challenges within the engineering industry over the last year, it’s clear that skills shortages are a bigger cause for concern than many might initially assume.

Change is critical

Experts claim that the STEM skills shortage costs UK businesses £1.5 billion a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs. With the number of new STEM roles predicted to double over the course of the next decade, it’s clear that businesses need to find a way to solve this problem sooner rather than later. One such method of encouraging more people to enter STEM industries is by engaging their enthusiasm in science, technology, engineering and math fields from an early age.

By engaging children in math from an early age, there is a higher chance of sparking their passion in these areas, which can go a long way to setting up a career in STEM fields. Math is a long term investment, as studies have shown that kids who perform well in math from an early age tend to perform well at school in STEM and science fields. However, the problem that many parents face is getting their children enthused by the topic, particularly if existing materials are not age-friendly and can make the children feel alienated.

STEM in the real world

Parents can help encourage their children to enjoy math and promote a growth mindset to help them feel capable of being successful with the subject. What is seen by many kids as an overwhelming and challenging subject, can quite quickly be turned into a fun one, with a few tweaks in the approach used to teach it. Keeping math visual and interactive helps a child to relax more and enjoy their time learning, creating a mindset that will help them to retain more information.

Additionally, using real-life scenarios when teaching can help a child to understand the necessity of it in everyday life. Children are naturally curious about the world around them as they experience things for the first time, so accompanying this with dialogue from a parent or teacher helps to turn real-life situations into learning opportunities. Furthermore, people in STEM roles often need to have a curious mindset: this way of thinking can be instilled from an early age by parents and teachers who welcome questions from children.

Engaging in STEM from an Early Age

The idea of engaging young children in STEM subjects can seem daunting at first. However, it can be easier than most parents think. Studies have shown that children learn math concepts more quickly when they have multiple opportunities to engage with the subject matter. While children will have various opportunities to engage in maths in the classroom, parents should look to take this a step further outside the classroom.

E-learning tools provide the optimum opportunity for parents to maintain their children’s engagement at home. Providing fun, interactive mathematical activities allows children to apply what they have learned and in turn allow them to grasp the subject better. As a result, their confidence in these subjects will grow and in turn will stay with them in later life.

It is clear that the approach to STEM learning needs to be rethought and approached with a long-term view. By implementing more engaging learning strategies, children will be set up to enjoy their learning experience more, and it can go a long way to closing the skills gaps within the STEM industries.

Natalia PereldikAbout the author

Natalia Pereldik is Co-Founder and CEO of Funexpected LTD, developer of the Funexpected Math app, which aims to help children aged three-seven years acquire mathematical thinking, and become comfortable with math from an early age.

Following a career in the investment banking industry that spanned over 15 years, Natalia Pereldik co-founded Funexpected in 2018, and is responsible for managing the overall operations of the company.

Natalia Pereldik

Inspirational Woman: Natalia Pereldik | Co-Founder, Funexpected

Natalia Pereldik

Natalia Pereldik is Co-Founder and CEO of Funexpected LTD, developer of the Funexpected Math app, which aims to help children aged three-seven years acquire mathematical thinking, and become comfortable with math from an early age.

Following a career in the investment banking industry that spanned over 15 years, Natalia Pereldik co-founded Funexpected in 2018, and is responsible for managing the overall operations of the company.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m Natalia Pereldik – Co-Founder of Funexpected company and the Funexpected Math app, which helps kids aged 3-7 years acquire mathematical thinking, and become comfortable with math from an early age.

After graduating in 2003, specialising in Mathematics, I went on to study the same subject at MA level. I spent the following 15 years in investment banking, and worked my way up to Executive Director level. However, once my first child turned three years old, I realised that I still had a huge amount of passion and love for mathematics, and co-founded Funexpected with a former classmate of mine, Alexandra Kazilo. Together we developed the Funexpected Math app.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not at all. Five years ago, if you had asked me what I would be doing in the next few years, I would never have thought I would be the Co-Founder of a company making educational products for children!

This spontaneity might have stemmed from the fact that I am genuinely interested in a wide range of quite differing fields. At school, I wanted to become a journalist, then changed my mind to a theatre actor - before finally opting to go into mathematics.

While I was at university, I understood that I was never meant to be a researcher, and switched my gaze and started studying economics. It was at this point where I decided to go into investment banking. Those years in particular were very exciting, but after my second child was born I felt that it was time for  a change - and that’s when I decided to become an entrepreneur.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I definitely have, but I guess this is true for most careers. I would say that the biggest challenges for myself came with co-founding the company. Though in the years leading up to Funexpected, I was working in quite a tough industry, I still needed to get used to the amount of failures that an entrepreneur faces. It took a lot of grit and determination - but you get used to it eventually and we got there in the end.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Without a doubt, Funexpected has been my biggest career achievement. We are still a young and small company, but more than 100,000 families worldwide have installed our app already. I am extremely proud of our team, and so grateful to the parents and families who have chosen to use our app.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

My family. They have always believed in me and I have enormous support from my husband and kids in everything I do.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Firstly I would say that you have to be ready to learn constantly. Fields and industries are changing so rapidly that you can’t afford not to. I would also advise anyone to find great mentors. I would say this is universal for any career - learn from people. Not only will they teach you what they know, but they are likely to inspire you as well.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Unfortunately, I think there are, and they begin at childhood - from families and in school. Many still believe - and support - the idea that their daughters are not very well suited to STEM. Sometimes, this is a subconscious decision. A parent or teacher will be trying to support a child while she is struggling with her work, telling her phrases like “Oh, that’s okay, you just aren’t a maths person.” And the girls just lose all enthusiasm for the subject.

Then again, the percentage of women in the STEM industry is low, and quite often girls feel that they need to be really ‘outstanding’ to be successful. I think that the more women role models we see, the sooner we will move away from gender stereotypes. Unfortunately, it’s still going to take some time before we get there.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

For now, I believe that it is very important to ensure that there is a healthy percentage of women in different teams. We need initiatives that help women to find mentors and support their move to more senior positions.

It’s also imperative that we work with children and the educational system, that we speak with parents and change this bias (subconscious or not) in their attitude towards their children. Very often, we find that a kid’s opinion of mathematics, for example, is already decided upon by the time they are 12-13 years old. It’s so important to show children different opportunities and scenarios before that.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

To change this biased attitude that many have about girls being bad in STEM fields.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Personally, I take inspiration in reading about the paths of other women and in speaking with them about their experiences..

There is a great group on Facebook called Female Founders Community, where female founders of businesses across the world come together to share their experiences and offer advice for others.

There are also some really interesting TED talks that discuss the roles of women in tech in great depths. Two I would specifically recommend would be ‘Why do ambitious women have flat heads?’, given by Dame Stephanie Shirley, and ‘Why we have too few women leaders’ from Sheryl Sandberg.

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