By Dr Nic Ross
Physics Higher as a starting point
This is the first in a series of articles that will discuss the `Skills Gap’ in the Scottish and U.K. Space Sector. With one of the three columns of the Scottish Space Network (SSN) being “Talent”, this discussion is both relevant to the SSN, as well as the wider space industry. Indeed, many of the topics that we will discuss will be of concern to the UK space sector at large, but we (unashamedly!) have a Scottish focus - with an “Act local, Think global” kinda thing going on.
The UK Space industry is currently experience a “Skills Gap” - students, graduates and the future UK Space workforce lack the right mixture of technical skills, experience as well as essential skills such as project management and professional communication. The Space Skill Alliance analysis and reports go into detail here. There is also a huge diversity issue; the UK/Scottish Space Sector is dominated by white men (of which the author is one).
In this first article, I would like to report on some elementary investigations that regard the Scottish Secondary education system. And we will, as a starting point, focus on STEM at the Higher level and in particular Higher Physics.
Massive thanks is given to the Scottish Qualifications Authority and in particular to Stephen Thomson in the Data & Analytics team.
I make no claims that there is a direct relation or strong correlation between the number of people studying Higher Physics and that are entering the Scottish work force in the Space sector. We all know it is not as simple as that. However, what I do want to do is gain an “order of magnitude” sense of the numbers of school pupils in Scotland engaged in STEM education, and what the breakdown according to some obvious demographics is.
The first figure shows the total number of Scottish Higher Physics examinations from 1986 to 2022. The total number is given by the black line; exams sat by boys in blue and girls by the orange line. The overall trend is down; from a bit under 13,000 (12,795) in 1986 to around 8000 in 2023 a fall of 37.5%. The percentage fall between boys and girls is similar: Male entries fell 37.3% (9411 down to 5895) while the fall in Female total entries is 38.1% (3384 to 2095).
Also shown in the Figure are some rough guides to when each ‘generation’ sat their Higher (Physics) exams. “Generation X” is the demographic cohort often categorized by the mid-1960s as starting birth years and the late 1970s as ending birth years. “Xenneials” are the micro-generation of people on the cusp of the Generation X and Millennial demographic cohorts. The use of birth years for Xennielas is from 1977 to 1984 (though some extend this to include those born from 1975 up to 1985). Critically, Xennials are described as having had “an analog childhood and digital young adulthood.” Millennials are often categorized by the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s as birth years. “Gen Z” use the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s as birth years. Generation Alpha with birth years from the mid-2010s to now are in the school system currently and are starting to take Higher exams.
It seems that strongest fall occurs with the Xennienals into the older Millennials. Whether this was due to the uptake of another Higher such as Computer Science, is left as an open question for further study.
The second figure takes the boy:girl demographic data in Figure 1 and shows the ratio of Highers by this demographic split. Although it has fluctuated over the time period 1986-2022, the ratio of boys and girls doing Higher Physics has remained within the bounds of 2.2-2.8:1, i.e. 69:31 to 74:26% Male:Female. Thus despite all the efforts by universities, physics societies and general social change in the given period, the percentage of girls studying Physics at Higher level has barely changed. Why this is, is again a topic of study for future research.
In Figure 2, we also show the ratio for Passes (A-C grades) and top A grades. This ratio has stayed steady around 1:1 for Passes, though there are strong indications that from older Xennenials onwards, girls tended to score relatively more A-grades than boys.
As noted at the start, this is only the very first part of what I really hope will be a long line of investigation. Naturally, any and all questions, comments, contributions or concerns would be welcome to be discussed.
Dr. Nicholas P. Ross MSci (Hons) PhD LLM
Founder & CEO
Sustainable Progress for Space
UK Space Agency Explore Accelerator Alumni, Class of 2023
*Main image is AI generated.