"If we want to inspire the next generation to get into STEM we must introduce them to breadth of STEM careers early on - and maintain that initiative," says Kirsten Bodley, chief executive of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET).

Presenting a positive image of STEM careers to secondary school students is not enough, she says. "Perceptions about careers are formed earlier so leaving it until age 13 or 14 is too late. We need to start in primary schools," says Bodley, a former development chemist who has also been a primary school teacher.

The Aspires research project by King's College London found that most children in years six to nine liked school science but most 14 to 19 year olds did not aspire to science careers and thought STEM qualifications led only to careers as scientists, doctors or in science teaching.

Worse, there is a perception that STEM careers are only for boys, which influences girls' career decisions. "As well as reaching girls we must reach boys. They must also understand that it is OK for girls to go into STEM," she adds.

One of the major challenges is the public perception of STEM careers. It's not all about oily rags and spanners, or working in labs or on building sites.

"The greatest influencers of daughters' career decisions are parents but they are hard to reach so we address children through schools and teachers, the second most important influencers," she says.

STEMNET tackles these problems with three national programmes.

It has over 30,000 STEM Ambassadors, who talk to secondary school students about their careers and demonstrate through practical work the reality of a life in STEM. "Over 60 per cent of them are under 35 and 40 per cent are women so they are realistic role models for young people," says Bodley.

STEMNET's STEM Clubs Programme offers schools free, impartial, expert advice and support to set up or develop a STEM Club where children can experience the fun of science with exam pressure.

Its Schools STEM Advisory Network (SSAN) delivers free advice, business links and partnerships to enhance the STEM curriculum. The advice, tailored to school or college needs, helps them access services, resources, activities, toolkits and advice, to support the curriculum and increase the number of students moving into further STEM education.