How to overcome barriers to learning and inspire the next generation of scientists

Emma Schierbaum
19th June 2017 at 12:01

Science students

It wasn’t always an obvious passion, like many young girls, aged five, I wanted to be a fashion designer. It wasn’t until secondary school that I had a science teacher who inspired me.

She was a strong female role model who, looking back, was the antithesis of the ‘mad scientist’ image. If I were in charge, that stereotype would be banned, I’d update the typical scientist to be charismatic, individuals with great personalities, but perhaps I’m biased!

Role Models

You might find yourself stuck for role models that students can connect to when it comes to science, but my advice is to think more laterally. David Attenborough is extremely inspiring and a scientist in more way than you might imagine.

Cross-curricular links can help bring inspiration too, looking at female scientists during history lessons on International Women’s Day is a good way to get future feminists fired up! We’re not just limited to Professor Brian Cox, brilliant as he may be.

Everybody has a responsibility to educate, not just teachers. These social media influencers who have millions of subscribers, they have a huge influence that can be used positively with very little extra effort.

I’d like it if they took a little time during their makeup tutorials to tell viewers how make-up is made (a real-life example of formulation science), or extended their football skills video to point out the perfect angle for a free-kick (a physics lesson in disguise).

In the meantime, we as teachers can work harder to point out these links, bringing the mountain to Mohammed, rather than the other way around.

Barriers to learning

For me, and for my students, the biggest barrier to truly understanding science is learning by the book. It’s easy as a teacher to punish a difficult class by devoting the lesson to textbook based learning, but who’s really winning from this?

We as teachers are our own greatest tool. Never mind the iPad, the video or the expensive piece of equipment, we have the power to inspire through our enthusiasm. Over time it’s easy to lose this through exhaustion and frustrations, but I remind myself why I got into teaching to get me back on track.

Making science real

It’s the dreaded question, “Miss, how is this going to help me in real life?”. Everyone has a different answer to this. Mine is simple and honest.

A lot of the time, we’re teaching students subjects which will help them pass their exams, but sometimes I’ll say: “Well, this will help you if you’d like to go on to become a forensic specialist, or a make-up artist.” This often jolts them back to reality, and they can find the honesty refreshing.

I’m a big fan of making students part of the science experiment and modelling abstract concepts.

If we’re studying rates of reaction and collision theory, I’ll divide the class into two, put some in red coloured party hats for reactant A and some in green for reactant B and ask them to move around the room bumping into each other slowly.

Sometimes when they collide with enough energy, I change the colours of their hats to resemble forming the product, this gives some understanding of the idea of activation energy and when you have students acting as the reaction, they’ll remember it in their exam.

Creating a narrative around abstract subjects is also key.

In certain chemistry lessons, I’ve given students the title of forensic scientist and built a story around a crime scene. It’s inspiring to watch them learn and grow through this story.

Another method to keep energy levels up is playing high-speed car chases to the class. We’ll time the chase and pause the videos at different points to try to link what's happening at certain times to the velocity or acceleration of the car and make graphs from there.

Career opportunities

To me, it’s easier to list which careers don’t include science in some form. I try to drive this home to students as often as possible. The pyrotechnician creating your favourite explosion scene in the latest Bond film, they’re a scientist; the expert coaching your football hero into the perfect free-kick, they’re a physicist.

The more we start to remind ourselves and our students daily that science isn’t just carried out within the four walls of the classroom, the more room we give them to grow into scientists of the future.

Emma Schierbaum is a science teacher, bio-chemist and manager at Baylab, a free state-of-the-art science lab to help support students’ science education outside of the classroom