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Making STEM More Popular, Graduates Better Prepared

Analysis

Photo by hajnalka Hurta/Amcham.

At its fifth conference on education, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary (AmCham) and the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency (HIPA) discussed the challenges of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and tried to find ways to make it more attractive for students.

László Ábrahám, managing director of NI Hungary.

There is a lot for schools to do if they want to improve the ratio of their students interested in sciences, and in particular in IT or engineering. These are the skill sets the economy needs the most and, of course, they are in short supply. So much so that this skilled labor crisis has grown into the single most important factor defining a company’s future now and in the short-term future.  

To keep up with innovation and technology, companies in Hungary need 6,000 engineers and 20,000 IT professionals, the conference was told, but education is just not providing enough. Despite efforts to turn more kids toward sciences and technology, the statistics have not greatly improved.

“The ratio of those studying and graduating from STEM should be 40%; now it stands at 29%,” László Ábrahám, managing director of NI Hungary told the audience of the fifth conference on competitive education, jointly organized by AmCham and HIPA.  

But why such a gap? For starters, trying to steer 18-year-olds towards a science career during career orientation talks in high school is often too late. By then, many have lost any genuine interest they had as a child in the sciences for which, mostly, it is the education that is to blame.  

In Hungary, students are prepared for entrance exams, for an outcome, a physics and chemistry teacher from Lauder Javne High School said from the audience. “The curriculum is so big that we don’t have time to linger longer at more interesting parts,” she added.  

Differentiation

Another issue, teachers at the conference agreed, is the lack of differentiation. Children with different levels of interest and ability should be taught in accordance with their skills, but the system doesn’t allow for it. But by differentiation they don’t mean separating brighter kids from those that take longer to grasp something; in fact, teachers at the conference condemned this system, although it is still in use in many schools.

So what could schools do to make STEM subjects more attractive?, AmCham asked its audience. The answer was smaller classes and group-sized and project-based education. This may be more time-consuming, but it is also more affective, the professionals agreed.  

Schools should also improve efficiency by applying more digital tools in classrooms and, most importantly, make learning STEM subjects fun. This requires a lot more from teachers; some went as far as to suggest educators should take a paid sabbatical and spend a semester at universities, attending the classes in the faculties they prepare students for to get a better understanding of what is expected from their pupils.  

Proper preparation is crucial as a high proportion of those students who do decide to go for a career in sciences get to college with large gaps in their knowledge.  

“We hold special courses for them [...] but it is crucial that they arrive with the right attitude and be conscious of their own limits and their abilities,” said János Levendovszky of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME). According to him, the main question is how committed the students are.  

“Sharing knowledge with them is not a problem, as long as they are motivated enough,” he added.

Newly Graduated

Motivation can be an issue for the newly graduated, as well. “At Morgan Stanley, we employ 200-250 fresh graduates every year,” said Norbert Fogarasi, managing director of the Budapest office at Morgan Stanley, and a former AmCham board member.

“Upon entry, they are sent to a global training. Their professional knowledge is good overall, but their motivation and attitude [could be improved],” he said. How these graduates fit into the corporate culture is crucial; indeed, their future could hang on it, Fogarasi noted.  

Students invited by AmCham had a different take on this topic. “Today, we have more space to ‘levitate’ between jobs; changing careers is no longer something to be ashamed about,” said Emese B. Varga, a participant of the finals of the 2019 SCIndikátor, a science communication program for college students.  

So losing motivation, realizing that something is not for you and changing career are not as big issues as they used to be. “We tend to start things more because if we find out we were wrong [about our choices], we have the opportunity to change,” Varga said.

Companies also tend to listen more to young employers’ needs. “There is much flexibility both in terms of topics and worktime,” Fogarasi said. “STEM careers in general give one much more flexibility overall.”

Must Try Harder

It is not only schools that have their homework to do; clearly, the state has a big stake in improving education. Spending on education as a ratio of GDP is very low in Hungary: 6.2% compared to the EU-average of 8.5%, László Ábrahám, managing director of NI Hungary pointed out. Only half of the contribution paid to vocational training is actually spent on vocational training, he added. Good command of language is crucial for further education as well. As of next year, everyone entering higher education requires a language exam and schools have not done much to ensure that will happen. Also, rather than making students fill in a career orientation test with concrete professions to choose from, their abilities and affinities should be tested, Ábrahám said.

Roundtable discussion at the conference.

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