Could referring to ‘Stem’ turn pupils off science?

Experts say that references to ‘Stem’ should be avoided and replaced by terms such as ‘creativity’ and ‘ideas’

Henry Hepburn

Could referring to ‘Stem’ turn pupils off science?

Teachers should obscure from students that they are doing Stem work because young people are put off if it is framed in this way, leading politicians have been told.

Stem is the commonly used acronym for science, technology, engineering and maths, but expert witnesses advised today against referring to Stem when dealing with students – instead, they should use terms such as “creativity”, “ideas” and “problem-solving”.

Clare Adamson, convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, said today that some educators had told her a few weeks ago that they “only do Stem by stealth”, because “if they presented young people with a problem or a project, they got stuck in – until they labelled it [as Stem]”.

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She asked expert witnesses, during a committee session today on Stem in the early and primary years of education, whether they agreed that references to Stem should be avoided and if this view was shared internationally.

Simon Gage, director and chief executive of Edinburgh Science, which runs the Edinburgh Science Festival, said: “Well, lots [internationally] don’t use the term at all.”

Dr Gage cited San Francisco’s Exploratorium – advertised as a “science, art and human perception museum” – which he said “takes a holistic approach to learning that embraces the arts, culture, science festivals” and was essentially a “cultural organisation”.

He said: “I think we have to be cautious about talking to young people about ‘Stem’ in the first place, talking [instead] about creativity, problem-solving, coming up with great ideas that are going to make the world a better place, being inventors, being creative, working in teams – that’s the language I think that young people will respond to, rather than ‘It’s time to do your Stem’.”

'Integrate' Stem into the curriculum

Nicola Dasgupta, who is vice-convener of the education committee of Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, told MSPs today: “I would agree with Dr Gage. I think it’s really important to have that interdisciplinary approach and to have that kind of integration in curriculum, and not have it segregated and call it Stem.”

Ms Dasgupta, a teacher at Onthank Primary School in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire, said it was common in primary schools to have a Stem week, when there would be a “big focus” on areas such as science and maths. But this tended to be temporary and, instead, she wanted Stem to have deeper roots in the primary curriculum.

She added: “I don’t agree with that [Stem week] approach – I think it should be across the curriculum, it should be much more integrated, it shouldn’t just be a week here or a week there.”

Ms Dasgupta stressed, however, that the primary curriculum was “overcrowded” and that “ticking boxes” by covering off Stem in a week was tempting for headteachers.

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray was concerned by evidence to the committee that primary teachers were, in his words, “overcapacity” and, as a result, “unable to engage with Stem, even if they want to”, and that some primary teachers “think Stem is important, but not as important as other things”.

Kathryn Thomas, a primary science development officer, representing the Raise project (Raising Aspirations in Science Education) and Highland Council, spoke of difficulties with science CPD sessions.

“You can see teachers have had a hard day and the last thing they want to do is training – they just want to be in the classrooms getting reading for the next day, sorting out all the paperwork,” she said.

But evaluation was “always really positive” after teachers had been shown what they could “take back into the classroom the next day” and that this could “feed into” the three main pillars of Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence: literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing.

Ms Thomas said: “You can sense the negativity at the start – 'Oh, Stem, it’s another thing I’ve got to think about' [but] I think at the end of the sessions they’ve got to see the value in what we’ve been delivering.”

Dr Gage said that he had found a common international problem with Stem, and that education ministers in different countries “are all talking about exactly the same issue”: international research is showing that “as a nation becomes more wealthy, the interest in science technology, engineering and maths diminishes”.

This was a major problem for educators trying to enthuse students about Stem – “It’s almost like a law of nature,” said Dr Gage.

He cited Japan as an example: living in one of the richest nations in the world, Japanese girls, in particular, have “almost no interest” in Stem.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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