Coming to a classroom near you... Magic, myths and mystery

Engaging students in Stem subjects

Dean Newell

You might think that the more conceptual side of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects would be mystery enough to capture a child's attention, but a new initiative aims to inject even more magic into them.

The Teaching Enquiry with Mysteries Incorporated (Temi) project arose out of research at Queen Mary, University of London, which looked at how magic could assist mathematics and computer science teaching. The university was granted #163;3 million by the European Commission's Science in Society group to extend the scheme.

"Our project aims to harness the power of magic tricks, myths and mystery to allow teachers and students across Europe to develop their investigative skills and explore some fascinating hidden science," explains the programme's leader Peter McOwan, professor of computer science and vice-principal for public engagement and external partnerships at Queen Mary.

The project aims to develop a range of teaching materials and training resources for science teachers, such as smartphone apps, videos and printed materials. This will be done in collaboration with 13 teaching institutions and networks from across Europe.

Resources will include a selection of tools to be developed by the Netherlands Research School for Astronomy (Nova). Pedro Russo, Temi project manager at the Leiden Observatory, which is leading the project in the Netherlands, explains that astronomy is a great fit with the scheme as it "is one of the oldest fundamental sciences and it continues to unveil (the) mysteries of our wonderful universe".

The initiative will also aim to encourage a different approach to teaching, helping teachers to improve their ability to capture an audience's attention by using theatre and other related techniques, while promoting enquiry-based learning.

But can adding a dose of detective fiction to your lessons really have an impact? McOwan thinks so. "People love solving mysteries. The popularity of television shows, books and films where the plot unfolds revealing new and previously unknown facts shows the universal appeal," he says.

Indeed, the Queen Mary team hopes that this method of teaching Stem will soon be standard in schools. But first, McOwan says, "teachers need to feel comfortable and supported in making the change, school management needs to be persuaded to allow it and national bodies need to be receptive to the enhanced potential of this type of teaching and to incentivise it".

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Dean Newell

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