Funded STEM research projects: What will your pupils investigate?

Written by: Headteacher Update | Published:
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Schools are being funded by the Royal Society to bring STEM research and STEM professionals into their classrooms, allowing pupils to develop crucial skills and giving them career insights and inspiration

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Pupils across the UK are being given the chance to take on interesting and engaging scientific research and investigations, working alongside STEM professionals to develop key skills, scientific mindsets, and a knowledge of what their future career might look like.

What’s more, schools are being given funding to help cover the expenses of this exciting work.

It is all part of the Royal Society’s Partnership Grants programme, which is now in its 20th year and is working at scale across the UK – there are currently more than 20,000 children and young people working with STEM professionals on 144 on-going projects across the country.

Jo Cox, the Royal Society’s schools engagement manager, said that a core aim of the programme is to show students the range of potential careers that STEM has to offer and to help them develop key practical skills for the STEM workplace.

She explained: “We need to develop a pipeline of people with STEM skills, particularly in relation to new and emerging technologies.

“This can only be achieved by developing sustained partnerships between schools, students and STEM professionals, which is what this scheme is all about. We want to give young people a sense of what the future will look like and to support teachers to embed those key skills – such as practical investigative work, problem-solving and data-handling.”

Royal Society Partnership Grants

To be eligible for the scheme, schools need to find a partner or partners with whom to work on a project. The partner is typically a university academic, a business working in a STEM industry, or an organisation such as a local wildlife trust. It could for example be someone in finance if the project involves interpretation of data.

Ms Cox continued: “The school might need the partner to support a project they have devised themselves or it may be that the STEM partner has a genuine research project that the school can contribute to by collecting data or samples.”

The funding always goes to the school with the teacher leading the application process, supported by their STEM partner. The scheme is fully supported and the Royal Society team will guide teachers through the whole process, from the development of initial ideas to receiving their funding.

As long as a project is eligible, it is highly likely that funding will be offered once it has been assessed by a panel of experts.

What kind of projects?

All projects will be a question that the students need to answer and this investigative element is crucial.

Ms Cox explained: “Every project has a question as its title, a question that must be answered by carrying out practical investigations. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an authentic piece of research because the key aim of the scheme is for young people to understand how science is done. It's more about how they investigate rather than what they investigate.

“So, the question could be something as simple as: what do plants need to grow?”

Schools are sometimes encouraged to do similar projects meaning they can compare results and get a realistic sense of the collaborative nature of science. Some recent project titles include:

  • What are the effects of current climate change mitigation policies on the local environment?
  • Can geoengineering be the answer to global warming?
  • How can we improve the health and wellbeing of astronauts with diet and exercise?
  • Can we power our school for free?
  • How much can we reduce our school’s use of fossil fuels by generating renewable energy on site?
  • How can we discourage invasive species from colonising our pond?
  • The Olympic GB luge team need a luge starting ramp – can pupils create the perfect design?
  • Is it possible to grow plants on Mars with our current technology?
  • What are the impacts of sustainable transport on air pollution?

Ms Cox continued: “We want young people to have the opportunity to carry out open-ended practical investigations – to solve problems by working scientifically and also to understand that it’s okay for experiments to sometimes fail.”

Making an application

Schools can apply at any time of the year and there are numerous review and judging points when applications are assessed (the next one is November). It typically takes around two school terms from application to award, so a school applying this autumn can expect to begin their project in the summer term.

“Although the assessment process is rigorous, with each application being seen by at least two judges as well reviewed by the chair of the panel, the process is meant to be supportive to ensure the success and scientific rigour of these projects,” Ms Cox added.

A wealth of information and support can be found on the Royal Society’s website, including:

An effective programme

An external evaluation of the programme, carried out in 2020, found that this fully supported partnership approach is unique in the STEM engagement landscape. It found that participating students had gained experience and a better understanding of the scientific process, while teachers had observed that pupils were more enthusiastic about science.

There was also an increase in students considering a STEM-related career after taking part in a project. Teachers, too, felt more confident after being involved in a project and found that it enhanced their passion for teaching STEM subjects.

The report states: “Particularly evident is the embedding of practical science in schools, as well as the development of key STEM skills for broader choices of careers. Two other strategic aims also addressed by the scheme are widening participation in post-16 STEM subjects and enabling more disadvantaged groups to participate in STEM activities.”

Schools working in challenging circumstances and disadvantaged areas are particularly encouraged to apply, as Ms Cox explained: “One of our key aims is to enable equal access to STEM opportunities and to narrow the participation gap. We want to increase the diversity of young people entering higher education and entering STEM professions.

Case study: Is the shape of red squirrel skulls related to the food items available in our area?

While the stimulus for a project usually comes from a school, sometimes it is initiated by the STEM partner. Royal Society-funded researcher Dr Phil Cox, from York University, had been investigating the impact of climate change on the decline of the native red squirrel population.

This developed into a multi-school Partnership Grant project involving more than 800 children from seven UK primary schools. The plan was for the pupils to collect food items from the local countryside to help determine the differences between nuts found around the country.

Dr Cox got pupils doing experimentation, including qualitative tests using nutcrackers, to give them an idea of how you go about designing a scientific experiment.

The children were encouraged to think about things such as how many samples would be needed, what the problems will be, and how to adapt the experiment if it does not work.

The schools involved have used their grants to purchase equipment to carry out the experiments including camera traps to observe the squirrels.

Mersea Island School set out to investigate the squirrels’ preferred habitats in Mersea, an island near Colchester where red squirrels were introduced 12 years ago and now seem to be thriving. Pupils considered the squirrels’ diet and jaw structure and whether this differed from their grey cousins.

Case study: Building a symbiotic city – can we design and build a sustainable city fit for the future?

Craigentinny Primary School in Edinburgh teamed up with STEM partner SWECO, an engineering and architect consultancy, with the aim of investigating ways to “live more sustainably and in partnership with our natural environment”.

Working in teams, the pupils planned, designed and built cities using a range of construction methods, tools and materials. SWECO supported and inspired the pupils by introducing them to the world of civil engineering and sustainable living. The project was centred around four questions:

  • What is a symbiotic city?
  • What are the environmental design considerations in sustainability?
  • How can we prioritise environmental construction choices that support modern living?
  • How do we implement a sustainable and inter-connected transportation network?

Pupils got to meet a range of engineers and learn about their roles, study the United Nations sustainability goals for development, and learn from a planning expert and an ecologist about the environmental impact on construction.

Pupils also investigated the water cycle and how water supply and sewerage systems tie in. One of their experiments was on toilet paper and wet wipe brands and how they impact sewerage systems.

Teacher Kelly Cooper said: “This has been a fun yet very challenging project. The children have developed many skills including problem-solving, team-work, creativity, digital literacy and resilience.

“It has certainly positively impacted my teaching practice and increased my confidence. Having STEM professionals working with me has been a fantastic experience and really helped bring the project to life. The children were opened up to a whole world of STEM career opportunities of which they were not previously aware.”

Knowledge Bank

This article has been published by Headteacher Update and SecEd with sponsorship from the Royal Society. It has been written and produced to a brief agreed in advance with the Royal Society.

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