Converting festive crafts into scientific research

Written by: Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Engaging questions: Award-winning physics teacher Neil Atkin has launched the bird feeder STEM challenge via the Rubbish Science initiative (image: supplied)

Winter crafts can be a valuable source of STEM learning, teaching pupils critical thinking and scientific skills while also having fun. Inspired by the Rubbish Science initiative, Fiona Aubrey-Smith explains

As we move towards Diwali, Christmas and other winter festivals, classrooms across the country increasingly draw upon craft and design projects as part of both celebration and creativity.

But alongside their place in RE, art, design technology and pastoral provision, these crafts can also be a valuable source of STEM learning.

For example, a great question to pose to young people might be: “Do Christmas decorations on a bird feeder make it more or less attractive to birds, or would it make no difference?”

This encourages learners in our classrooms to think more forensically about the design and construction of their bird feeder, the nature of materials used, the relationship between nature and science, the forming and testing of hypotheses, and the dissemination of outcomes

As Neil Atkin, an award-winning physics teacher, explained: “Our young people live in an increasingly polarised world of information and misinformation. Developing scientific literacy where they learn to question their own and other’s ideas and look for evidence is essential.

“When scientists publish their findings, they have to convince other sceptical scientists that the evidence they are presenting is reliable and valid. This demands much greater attention to challenging our own findings first and exploring different possibilities and sources of evidence.”

Having observed Neil teaching, one of the many phenomenal features of his practice is that he constantly encourages students to challenge him. He reminds them that when presented with any fact, finding or claim they must ask: “Where is the evidence?”

Where there is an absence of evidence there must instead be questions, ideas and a healthy challenge for what is presented to us – a finding that applies just as much to media literacy and digital literacy as it does to science.

Importantly, this focus on searching for evidence encourages us all to be more open – encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

As Neil said: “Teaching science should be an exploration of a real issue, an opportunity to find out something new. This challenges our students to provide and share evidence for their findings that will convince others about what they found – it gives them real purpose, a real audience and makes classroom science relevant to their wider lives.”

Fortunately, this kind of science doesn’t have to be limited to specialist teaching – simple activities are available to us all to weave into a range of other lessons. This is where the festive bird feeders come in. This activity can also be extended into a fully integrated STEM lesson.

  • The Problem: The annual RSPB Garden Birdwatch has shown the massive decline in the number of garden birds. With winter approaching and an increasingly unpredictable climate this is an activity where students can make an immediate and real impact on their own school site, garden or local community area.
  • Scientific question: “Do Christmas decorations on a bird feeder make it more or less attractive to birds or would it make no difference at all?”
  • Task: Using everyday discarded materials (for examples and ideas, see the Brilliant Rubbish Science website), invite pupils to design and make two bird feeders – ideally from plastic bottles. These could be made in class or at home, individually, in pairs, groups or through vertical collaboration (lots of opportunities for meaningful social learning). The two feeders must be identical in every respect other than one has Christmas decorations on it.
  • The experiment: Learners have to find out which feeder (if any) is preferred by the birds over a chosen timeframe and provide evidence that will convince others that their findings are valid. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to carry out structured written recording (although they might wish to – and you might wish to tie this in with mathematical data handling or spreadsheet formulas, video recording of the feeders etc).
  • The outcome: Learners are invited to share their findings with others and to see how many people they can convince – on the basis of real evidence – in order to increase the number of healthy garden birds in their local area.
  • Social impact: Through dialogue and evidence, learners are being empowered to solve real-world problems through their own ideas, without depending on finance or adult gate-keepers.

With the festive season therefore approaching – whether you use this simple bird feeder idea or another, Neil Atkin’s message to you is to think about how simple everyday activities – using discarded everyday materials – can become catalysts for science solving everyday problems. For more on this idea and many others, see the Rubbish Science website and you can follow Neil on Twitter @natkin.

Most importantly, for every claim, fact or idea that they are introduced to, champion our young people to look for the evidence, bringing a greater level of critical thinking and critical application to both students and teachers alike.

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith supports schools and trusts with professional learning, education research and strategic planning. She is the founder of One Life Learning, an associate lecturer at the Open University, a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via and follow her on Twitter @FionaAS.

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