Using CREST to break down barriers in STEM

Written by: Caitlin Brown | Published:

Caitlin Brown discusses the need to incorporate project-based learning approaches in order to knock down barriers to STEM learning and considers how the CREST Awards can help at primary school level

STEM disciplines are often viewed as less accessible than other subjects. Young people can inherit these inhibitions from those around them – including family members – which often, sadly, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to learning STEM subjects.

At a time when most young people are learning remotely, misconceptions around STEM become an even greater problem. It is therefore vital that pupils and parents can access STEM learning resources that not only support the delivery of the STEM primary curriculum but also make good use of methods such as project-based learning (PBL).

PBL helps to relate STEM subjects to their real-world applications, which in turn makes the subjects feel less daunting. PBL also lends itself well to cross-curricular and offline learning, both of which are useful when facing the challenges of learning science from home.

Start pupils early

STEM intersects with everything around us, so it is important that young people have the chance to nurture an appreciation of and interest in these subjects from a young age, before any negative perceptions of them as being “too hard” or “not accessible” can build up. This means teaching the STEM curriculum in as accessible and engaging a way as possible.

PBL utilises the principles of learning through play, which enables young people to develop positive associations with STEM learning early on. It is also easier to keep young people engaged with the hands-on style of PBL, which makes it an ideal method to use during this period of remote learning.

Using diverse role models also plays a key part in helping to build positive views of STEM early on. All young people should feel represented in STEM, so a lack of representation can create further barriers to aspiration within the sector. It is understandably harder for young people to envision themselves in these career paths when they do not see people like themselves in these roles.

Real-life applications

Even at primary level, PBL allows pupils to gain an insight into how the lessons they learn in the classroom can apply to their daily lives.

One effective way of delivering PBL is via the CREST Award. CREST is a nationally recognised scheme for student-led project work in the STEM subjects.

Managed by the British Science Association, at primary level the award offers Star and SuperStar levels, designed to be easy-to-run and low-cost for children typically aged five to seven and seven to 11. Children gain an award by completing eight challenges, which are available to download.

CREST Award activities incorporate PBL. A primary pupil might look at how different sounds are made when they tap milk or juice bottles containing differing levels of liquid. Or they might go into the garden or to the local park to investigate plants and local ecosystems.

These activities help to challenge the misconception that science is an exclusively academic subject and instead shows how science is a part of everything we do and the world around us. They also place the pupil in the role of the scientist or engineer, helping them to develop their self-identity in relation to STEM.

It is crucial that primary school teachers are supported as much as possible so they can deliver a rich and engaging science curriculum during this period of remote learning and beyond.

The CREST primary curriculum mapping resource (see further information) is an invaluable guide that helps to link CREST Award activities to the learning objectives in the primary science curriculum, ensuring that pupils can continue to progress no matter what their learning environment.

Cross-curricular approaches to STEM

PBL lends itself naturally to cross-curricular learning, which is important for several reasons. First, it is capable of engaging young people who may be less enthused by STEM subjects. Second, it demonstrates to young people that subjects do not exist in silos, and that their real-world applications often interconnect.

For example, history and science naturally intertwine with subjects such as archaeology, requiring expertise across the board. Similarly, art, design and the sciences are highly interdependent, even though many might see these subjects as worlds apart.

It is key that young people are given a well-rounded science curriculum that reflects its real-world application. STEM is not all textbooks and test-tubes – it can involve investigating materials for fashion projects to testing different types of tea – and STEM lessons should demonstrate this.

Utilising resources that require offline learning

Whether schools are fully open or closed or to the majority to pupils, teaching resources and modes of learning shouldn’t be limited to those found on a computer or in a textbook. PBL is a brilliant solution, offering a more hands-on style of learning that builds skills which the standard, rote style of learning would struggle to achieve.

The CREST Award challenges are set out in neat lesson plans that contain instructions for both the pupil and the teacher or parent and help children to engage with the primary science curriculum at a deeper level.

CREST Award activities are specifically designed to enhance pupils’ real-world understanding and problem-solving, independent working, decision-making, practical science, reflective practice, reporting and communication skills.

Many of the activities also require minimal resources, making them ideal for home or remote learning. For example, the CREST Animal Adventure activity encourages children to start thinking about minibeasts and habitats and all they need to get going is a collecting jar, magnifying glass and the outdoors.

  • Caitlin Brown is CREST product manager at the British Science Association.

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