Ideas for developing global citizens through STEM activities

Written by: Emily Hunt | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are plenty of links between practical STEM study and global citizenship. Drawing on her new book, Emily Hunt offers quick ideas for your lessons

If the past year has taught us anything it is that our world is much smaller than we realised. Events that happen many miles away across borders and seas can touch us in our homes and schools and leave a lasting impact.

The spread of a virus on a world map is the most obvious example, but melting icecaps, refugees seeking safe havens or plastic floating across the ocean all demonstrate how local events can escalate into global challenges.

For our primary school children, it has been a year of unprecedented disruption and change. Adults and young people alike are grappling to understand and adapt to challenging global circumstances. News headlines have permeated our classrooms like never before, leading us to reflect on our education system and the way in which we present global issues within the classroom.

The wellbeing of children and young people is central to the work we are doing in schools this year. As educators, many of us share a vision where children:

  • Develop an understanding of what is going on in the world.
  • Have a safe space to discuss, ask questions and voice their opinions about global events.
  • Understand that they can create positive change in the world.

One way we can achieve this is through teaching children the skills of global citizenship.

What is global citizenship?

Global citizenship encourages children to reflect on the world around them and understand their identity within a global community. Oxfam defines a global citizen as “someone who is aware of and understands the wider world – and their place in it. They take an active role in their community and work with others to make our planet more peaceful, sustainable and fairer”.

The concept of being a global citizen aligns well with many of our traditional school values – caring, respect, empathy, achievement. These are the kind of qualities we hope to develop in children not only during their time within our school community but beyond this into their lives.

Global citizenship and STEM

STEM activities are a great way to teach global citizenship skills. STEM is a problem-based, interdisciplinary approach to teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Activities often begin with a real-world problem or question, helping children to contextualise the learning and see its practical application.

STEM activities also provide children with the opportunity to develop valuable soft skills. Critical thinking, problem-solving, confidence, creativity, team-work – the list goes on. These soft skills are crucial to tacking global challenges, and in a wide range of careers. Here are two examples of such activities…

Water Filter Challenge

Begin with the real-world question: How can we clean dirty water? Set children the challenge of cleaning muddy water using just a plastic bottle, a clear glass and natural materials such as stones and sand. After some trial and error they will probably find that the best way to solve the problem is to cut the bottom off the bottle and place the narrow end into the glass. They can then fill the bottle with layers of natural materials, creating a filter. As they pour the water through the filter, they will observe it becoming cleaner.

This activity prompts children to think about the challenges involved in accessing clean water in developing countries. It also points us towards the vital role that engineers, and environmental scientists have in achieving the UN’s Clean Water and Sanitation Sustainable Development Goal.

Hurricane Houses

This activity begins with the real-world question: How can we design a house to survive a hurricane? The children can then set about designing their hurricane-proof structure, equipped with resources such as lolly sticks, plasticine, sticky tape and paper.

Put their house to the test by placing them in front of a fan – one metre away – and turning it on. If the house withstands the winds for 30 seconds without blowing away or getting damaged, start moving it forward in 10-centimetre increments. You could refer to these as hurricane categories, with the closest increment to the fan representing a “Category 5” storm with the highest wind speeds.

This activity provides an excellent opportunity to develop children’s awareness of the wider world, through follow-up discussions about what hurricanes are and how they affect people, and how climate change is linked to extreme weather. It can also be used to encourage them to reflect on ways that we can create positive change in the world, for example by learning about the important role that civil engineers play in designing and building hurricane-proof houses.

Children as agents of change

It is easy for children to feel that global problems are for the adults to solve. However, it is possible to strike a balance between letting children be children and teaching them that they can create positive change in the world. Strong role models for this include Greta Thunberg, whose solo school strikes against climate change led to a greater consciousness of the global environmental emergency.

Thoughtfully chosen problem-based challenges provide rich learning opportunities for children to develop an awareness and foundational understanding of global issues. Through solving real-world STEM problems inside the classroom, children can recognise their agency outside, in the wider world.

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