STEM: Building early foundations

Written by: Emily Hunt | Published:
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When should we introduce the STEM approach and how can we maintain children’s engagement with STEM throughout their education? Emily Hunt offers teachers some advice

The motivating concept behind STEM education is that these are intertwined subjects that are best taught together. Grounded in practical, real-world learning, at its best the STEM approach prepares students to be creative, adaptable problem-solvers.

As we progress well into the 21st-century, STEM-related industries continue to grow and transform our economy and way of life. There are considerable opportunities for young people to find well-paid and rewarding careers if they remain open-minded about pursuing study in STEM fields.

A report by Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee revealed that the UK has a particular skills shortage in sectors that depend on STEM, with nearly 40 per cent of employers reporting difficulties in recruiting staff with relevant STEM skills. Its Digital skills crisis report (June 2016) emphasised the need to create more interest in computer science and STEM at primary level, and for this to be maintained until potentially career-defining choices are made in selecting subjects at GCSE and A level.

If we wish to encourage more children to pursue STEM subjects beyond compulsory education then foundations of engagement and enthusiasm need to be created early, within primary school. If we can do this, secondary schools can confidently build upon this and take children to the next level of insight.

As children move through the schooling system, teachers play an important role in helping children to make informed career choices for their future. By the time children begin secondary school, they will already have formed their own perceptions about STEM subjects.

For example, the recent report Drawing the future, by charity Education and Employers (January 2018), suggests that children form gender associations with certain jobs by as young as seven. Career aspirations are also influenced by socio-economic background, with parents and extended family members being the most influential in defining a child’s career aspirations. This shows the importance of teachers inviting additional role models, such as STEM Ambassadors, into the classroom.

Here are six strategies for laying an early foundation of enthusiasm and openness to STEM.

Link learning to real-life

With the ever-present test culture in schools, many students question what the point is in their work. We need to reassure them that the skills they learn at school are useful beyond sitting exams. When planning your lessons, include time for pupils to make real-world links.

This could be something as simple as asking how many occupations pupils can name that use the knowledge or skills they are learning. Or you could begin the lesson with a real-life problem for them to tackle using the skills you have taught. The new focus on reasoning and problem-solving in mathematics aligns well with this approach. Linking learning to real-life is a great way to make it as exciting and engaging as possible.

Make STEM lessons practical

Much of STEM naturally has a practical focus. When we make our lessons hands-on, we allow students the opportunity to develop usable skills that go beyond exam knowledge, such as reading and recording data from instruments. Practical lessons can also nurture important soft skills. These include team-work, communication, problem-solving and critical thinking.

Make cross-curricular connections

There are significant overlaps across the STEM curriculum, particularly in science and maths. In secondary this presents exciting opportunities to work across departments. In primary schools teachers already have more flexibility to develop their curriculum around a central theme.

One challenge for school leaders is to make sure there are opportunities to facilitate cross-curricular dialogue, perhaps through dedicated meeting time and INSET days. With the new scientific framework allowing more opportunities to apply mathematical skills, schools need to ask themselves: do maths teachers know the scientific contexts in which students will be expected to use their mathematical skills? Do science teachers know how mathematical concepts are taught and are they using a consistent approach?

Set work where ‘mistakes’ are opportunities to learn

The idea of turning mistakes into a positive seems rather at odds with the culture of achievement created by test scores. However, it is important that we create a mistake-friendly culture in our classrooms, encouraging students to see mistakes as normal, inevitable and as important learning opportunities. Mistakes can lead to some of our greatest achievements, if we take the time to understand what needs fixing. Practical STEM activities are a fantastic way for children to apply and refine their own ideas. The more hands-off with this we can be as teachers the better. Build resilience and encourage children to be kind to themselves when they make mistakes.

Team up with local businesses and universities

As much as we can try, teachers can’t be expected to be experts in everything and nor should we pretend to be. Give students opportunities to meet STEM industry professionals: this will help to enthuse and invigorate learning. The STEM Ambassadors website is a great place to start. Alternatively, reach out to local businesses and universities. Many of these have outreach departments and are often only too happy to come in to schools and work with students. For older students, this is also an invaluable opportunity for them to gain early career guidance (and could even open the door to work experience down the line).

Seek out female role-models

Recent research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) polled 13 to 23-year-olds and found that just 26 per cent of girls are looking to pursue a career in STEM compared to 43 per cent of boys. When teaming up with local businesses and universities, where possible seek out female role-models to work with students or lead an assembly. The more we can expose children to women in STEM from a young age, the more we can help to dispel negative stereotypes, and show that STEM careers are for everyone.

  • Emily Hunt is an author and teacher. Her book, 15-Minute STEM: Quick, creative activities for 5-11 year-olds, published by Crown House Publishing is available now.

Further information

For information on the STEM Ambassadors scheme, see www.stem.org.uk/stem-ambassadors


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