Female electrical engineer designs lighting shows

Written by Dr Maria Stukoff, director of the Morson Maker Space at the University of Salford

As we recover from the recent pandemic, it is more important than ever to inspire the next generation of problem solvers, climate innovators, and engineers to help us understand the world around us. 

Governments are heavily invested in addressing skill shortages with specific attention on the shortage of women in STEM; still underrepresented in many industries. Indeed, the UK government reports a large gender gap, with significantly fewer women enrolled in STEM university courses. At the moment, the education system simply cannot supply enough graduates with the necessary skills to fill current and future STEM roles, let alone answer industrial sectors’ equality and diversity targets.

So how do we encourage more women and girls to study STEM subjects? And how do we make those studies relevant to the hands-on skills employers need now and in the future?

Technology is transforming the 4th industrial revolution (IND4.0) at an unprecedented rate, and educational institutions have historically found it challenging to quickly adopt and integrate new technologies into their curriculum. A recent analysis of the boom in maker spaces within institutions has shown that universities are seeking new approaches to maximise opportunities for students by enabling them to acquire industry relevant skills. Essentially, maker spaces are studios with hands-on activities where students can put their coursework into practice or explore ideas through prototyping products. By combining advanced manufacturing technologies and digital fabrication, maker spaces provide an open-access culture where anyone can explore ideas and learn practical skills. This provides a nimble approach to keeping up with industry trends, enabling academic institutions to integrate industry tools that support formal classroom teaching, and ensuring the next generation of STEM talent has the technological experience employers need.

Developing partnerships between academic institutions and employers is a critical factor correlating the talent nurtured by maker spaces with the needs of key commercial sectors – both in terms of skills, and in terms of inclusion and diversity. The partnership between the University of Salford and global talent solutions specialist, Morson Group, highlights how this principle can be applied in practice. By investing in progressing pathways to engage with diverse talent from the very youngest of bright minds, Morson is demonstrating how business can support education to help drive the levelling up agenda, encourage diversity in STEM industries and develop future talent pools aligned to industry requirements.

Morson has provided the core funding for the University of Salford’s state-of-the-art maker space, with a STEM programme that provides students with opportunities to acquire future-fit skills with equipment they will use in the workplace once they graduate. The maker space supports everything from additive manufacturing, metal printing and CNC machining, through to delicate microscopic instrumentation and electronics, folding or laser cutting paper and farm robotics.

This unique partnership engages the whole of the student community, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, and highlighting the need for women to be integral to innovation in engineering – at the university and beyond. The programme goes a long way towards breaking down dated stereotypes in which engineering roles are seen as the domain of young white males by bringing Morson’s experience of ED&I recruitment best practice into the university, and benefitting students with industry talks and workshops, careers sessions and placement opportunities.

Morson also contributes to the university’s ‘Women in Engineering – Go Beyond’ mentoring programme, which was established in response to concerns raised by female graduates about a lack of confidence in securing the right career opportunities. The programme delivers a proactive approach to career guidance, helping female students develop self-awareness and interpersonal skills to aid their transition to a successful career. It’s initiatives like this that ensure the education/commercial partnership delivers value beyond the physical maker space facility.

It’s clear that, to encourage more diversity of talent, the principles of collaboration between education and the commercial world need to be embedded at every stage of the educational journey, inspiring curious minds to explore the world around them. For example, Morson is co-funding IntoUniversity’s new learning centre, which will serve young people aged 7-18 in the heart of Salford’s community, in collaboration with the University of Salford. These centres are usually based in economically disadvantaged areas, and they promote STEM skills by breaking down barriers to learning for the next generation of talent. In this way, we can overcome both gender and socio-economic barriers to STEM study and careers, enabling young people to make positive decisions for their futures and consider being an active voice in the fourth industrial revolution.

Already, programmes making STEM more accessible have helped increase the number of women in engineering roles. According to EngineeringUK’s recent research (2022), 16.5% of engineers are female, up from 10.5% in 2010. With our Go Beyond mentoring scheme and women in engineering networking events, the University of Salford is connecting young women with each other so that they can build lifetime connections. In this way, STEM can be a viable career path for them in the future and can give these women an edge in battling stereotypes and tackling behaviours commonly perceived as barriers to entry into STEM fields.

About the author

Maria StukoffDr. Maria Stukoff is a well-known advocate for developing future-proof digital skills through digital technology education, video game development, and creative practices. She leads The University of Salford’s Maker Space, powered by Morson Group. The Maker Space is an engineering flagship that supports industry collaboration in additive manufacturing, 3D fabrication, rapid prototyping, and digital design, where students can learn the skills of tomorrow on industry-standard machines.

Maria is regarded an ‘imagineer’ of all things digital and has fostered her passion for creative technology and innovation in previous commercial and technical roles, such as the BBC and leading Sony’s PlayStationFirst Game Development Academy, for graduates to develop PlayStation content at accredited global game incubators. She is one of the founding members of the ‘Next Gen Skills Academy’ and worked with BAFTA to engage young people and specifically motivate young women to pursue careers in film, video games, and virtual reality. Her teaching and mentoring work was recognised by the sector trade magazine MCV for consecutive years for producing routes into the game development sector.

Maria is a sought-after public speaker on gender equality challenges and a champion for women in technology. In addition to launching a variety of digital education reform initiatives and women mentoring programmes, she has worked closely with government and industry sector bodies to address the digital skill shortage.