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5 essential skills you learn from STEM subjects

By EDF | Posted November 09, 2018

If you’ve ever had to complete a Personal Statement or a job application, you’ll know that universities, colleges and employers aren’t just interested in how well you can solve trigonometry problems or demonstrate your understanding of Newton’s Laws; they also want to know what kind of person you are – and this is what they can learn from the ‘soft’ skills you have.

These are essentially the qualities and attributes that define how you might approach a challenge or work alongside others in the workplace environment – and they’re becoming more important in a world where you might change jobs or industries more frequently than your parents’ generation did.

If you study science, technology, engineering or maths – the ‘STEM’ subjects – the good news is that the intrinsic skills you learn from these subjects are some of the most sought-after skills employers and universities are looking for.

The even better news is that these skills aren’t just relevant to a job in one of these fields; they’re invaluable to any career. As Sophie Deen, CEO and founder of Bright Little Labs told us in a recent Q&A: “The skills you learn through studying science – of scientific enquiry and being able to investigate something logically and draw conclusions from it – can be applied to any career.”

Read on to find out what 5 essential skills you learn from studying STEM subjects…

1. Problem solving

Whether you’ve had to grapple with an erroneous line of code in computing or determine the angle between two vectors in maths, you’ll know from experience that problem solving lies at the heart of all STEM subjects. But employers aren’t just interested in whether you can answer a question correctly; they want to know you have the skills to work through a problem on your own – and if you’ve studied STEM subjects this will be second nature.

The process of problem solving can be broken down into a series of logical steps: identifying there’s a problem, thinking about how you might fix it, trying out various options, solving it, and then perhaps sharing the solution with others. STEM subjects teach you how to work through this process logically: either as part of your learning – for example, learning about the engineering design process in engineering – or simply from practising how to solve problems time and time again in each subject.

Top tip for your Personal Statement or job application: Don’t just talk about having problem solving skills; give examples of how you’ve worked through the problem-solving process (e.g. how you approached the challenge of creating an engineering product for your GCSE Engineering assessment).

2. Rigour and attention to detail

Admittedly we’ve squeezed in a couple of skills here – three if you include ‘thoroughness’ too – but these describe a skillset that’s highly prized by employers for many new and emerging jobs, such as in data science.

The good news is that these principles underpin all STEM subjects. Consider science, for example, and the process you work through when carrying out an investigation: first, you come up with a hypothesis that you’ plan to test – and a prediction for what you think might happen. You’ll want to make sure that the conditions are fair each time and take accurate measurements throughout as you observe what happens.

Afterwards, you display your results in a way that’s easy to read, before analysing them to draw conclusions about what they say and how they relate to your original prediction. You might then consider whether the results are repeatable and how you could improve your data next time.

This rigorous approach will stand you in good stead in the workplace. You might not be replicating any of your GCSE experiments, but being able to approach any problem with the same level of logic, thorough research and attention to detail is highly valued by employers.

Top tip for your Personal Statement or job application: Can you demonstrate your application of rigour and attention to detail in any areas of your life? For instance – have you done any campaigning? Ran for school office? Talk about the way in which you researched and planned the task, and evaluated your performance afterwards.

3. Creativity

Creativity might be a skill you typically associate with art or drama. But if studying science, technology, engineering or maths teaches you anything – it’s how to get creative and think outside the box to find solutions to problems. As Albert Einstein once said, “The greatest scientists are artists as well”.

“All of science is creative,” says Sara-Jane Dunn, a scientist and mathematician at Microsoft in this article. “If you’re being creative, you’re using ideas and imagination to come up with something new. That’s what engineers do when they build bridges and skyscrapers. It’s what biologists do when they build experiments to peer into the inner workings of cells; it’s what computer scientists do when they build applications that are changing the way we live our lives.”

There are so many examples from history of how scientists have used creativity to make new discoveries. Watch this TedEd video, for instance, to discover how calculations of the Earth’s circumference and measurement of the speed of light came about from two scientists carrying out simple creative methods anyone could have followed.

Top tip for your Personal Statement or job application: Don’t be shy of celebrating your creativity in all its forms in your application – even if it doesn’t link directly to the subject or job you want to pursue in the future. Leonardo da Vinci was an inventor, painter, mathematician, botanist and more! And if he wasn’t defined by one label alone, why should you be?

4. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is the process of analysing or reflecting on a problem. Like rigour and attention to detail, it’s a valuable skill required for many new jobs in data science and management. But the ability to gather information and evaluate what this means is a skill that transfers across job roles and sectors.

Whenever you’re attempting to solve problems in STEM subjects – be it making observations in a science experiment or working through the design process in engineering – you’re developing your critical thinking skills. By actively participating in problem solving tasks in these subjects, you’re learning not just what to think (the solution) but how to think (what approach you need to take to reach a solution).

What’s more, you learn a whole slew of new skills through critical thinking: from learning how to gather information, reason effectively, and think creatively, to communicating your thoughts effectively.

Top tip for your Personal Statement or job application: Can you think of any times you’ve applied critical thinking to work through a task or problem? It might be something you had to do in a lesson or perhaps a challenge outside school (raising awareness for a cause you believe in, for example).

5. Robustness

Last – but, by no means, least – being robust (or flexible to adapt when things go wrong) is perhaps the most relevant skill you need for succeeding in the future workplace.

Sir James Dyson famously spent 15 years creating 5,126 versions of his game-changing vacuum cleaner before he came up with one that worked. As Albert Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

You probably know from experience (be it a poorly engineered product or an unsuccessful science experiment) that if STEM subjects teach you anything, it’s how to learn from your failures. And to try again. And again… Or another 5,124 times in James Dyson’s case! We learn from every failure – how not to make the same mistake again, for a start – and this constant testing and modifying helps us to get closer to producing a successful result.

This flexibility won’t just stand you in good stead for a job in a classic STEM industry though; being able to adapt and consider alternatives will help you navigate challenges in your career, whatever the sector. But perhaps more importantly, this quality sets you up for having resilience in life and being able to deal with any rocky patch you encounter along the way. So consider this next time one of your science experiments fails catastrophically or your engineering project collapses on first test!

Feeling inspired? Discover these 5 engineering jobs you might never have heard of before or read these tips to improve your employability skills. To find out more about Pretty Curious, our programme to inspire more girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers, take a look at the Pretty Curious hub.