Students like science lessons, don’t they? They like blowing things up. They get excited about seeing (and in some cases feeling) the different organs that make the body work. And playing with the Van de Graaf generator is always popular. None of this, sadly, means that they will choose to carry on with science subjects once they reach 16.
Many approaches have been suggested, or assumed, to help with maintaining student engagement; just talk to them about The Big Bang Theory or show them a video with Brian Cox (or, at least, his silhouette against a beautiful landscape). Do practical work every lesson. Teach them to code. Send them to robotics competitions.
Maybe these factors do help – after all, it’s easy to find examples of undergraduates or science communicators or Nobel prizewinners who can tell you that this moment, this film, this teacher, was the reason they went on to do what they do. Arguably, these are exactly the wrong people to ask. We need to ask the ones who gave up our subjects and why – especially those who we thought could do it, whose test scores and other achievements showed the potential of a future scientist or engineer. Their answers tell us that a better approach is a steady series of examples that are exciting and achievable for our students.
In our lessons
For many students, 16 is too late. They choose their A levels based on interest, enjoyment and how much they think it will help with future careers. That means if our subject isn’t in their top five, even if they enjoy it and work hard, we lose them. At GCSE, we need to emphasise that Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects are facilitating subjects for lots of future courses, respected for the numerate aspects, and that many careers rely on them. We need to make sure our classes realise that the sciences need competent individuals with technical skills who can work in teams, not a lone genius with a blackboard.
This doesn’t mean ignoring the knowledge in favour of teamwork challenges every week. Simply make sure that cooperation and negotiation are modelled during activities, give students nominated roles in practical tasks and don’t let a few confident members of the class do all the hands-on work. Ensure that links between subjects are emphasised and show how this is a vital part of all science-informed careers.
From their first lesson in Year 7, apply ideas to a broad and inclusive range of contexts, always taking the chance to flag up career choices that aren’t nuclear physicist, doctor or engineer. This isn’t about dumbing down but giving them a starting point that they can consider before we show them how far it can take them. Have students “spot the science » at the weekends, from the physiotherapists supporting their favourite sports teams (and the drugs cheats who corrupt the competitions) to the coders who build accurate physics into games and films. Keep a list and watch it grow.
On the walls
A really simple change is to have a map in the corridor, or two maps: one local and one national. Add a pin to show where last year’s students went for science-related careers. Over time, add more pins by asking returning students or their younger siblings for a sentence about what they’re up to. Appeal through the school Facebook page or Twitter account, and share the ideas there so parents start to see where their kids could go. From apprenticeships in engineering to physics degrees, radiographers at the local hospital to sound engineers in radio or TV. Bring in somebody whom your students could imagine themselves imitating.
It’s easy to add a display of historical scientists, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that science ends up looking like a dead subject with all the answers sorted out. In reality, we’re still figuring out new questions. Why not add a complementary display of modern scientists and what they’re up to? As well as being a much better advert for diversity, these are people and professions our students can aspire to. Allie Wilkinson’s This is what a Scientist Looks Like project is a great source of non-stereotypical scientist biographies, as is the recent Scientists Who Selfie trend. Or how about the selection of videos from scientists themselves on Why is Science Important?
One-off events have a much smaller impact than drip-feeding the ideas over time. Science week, a guest lecturer, a competition once a year – they’re all appealing, but the evidence shows that it’s the regular reminders and challenging stereotypes that really help. Losing a competition puts more students off science than it encourages. Instead, how about working with a Stem ambassador or a researcher in residence? Or students could design, carry out and write up some real scientific research in their own journal.
Don’t forget the parents. Open evenings and parent consultations are your chance to challenge the idea that science isn’t something their children should ignore. Show them the careers information. Tell them about the former students who are studying, working and succeeding. Some will be interrupting before you’re finished with how their own jobs are informed by science, directly or otherwise. Which is when you ask about work-experience placements. Use the parental network to your advantage – there are many more parents than teachers after all.
I used to start the school year by turning out my pockets and challenging students to recognise the science implicit in our lives. It stretches from the metallurgy of my keys and wedding ring to drug trials for painkillers, from the link between the shape of my lenses and my optical prescription to the magnetic coding and NFC chip on my credit card. And that’s before we consider the many facets of mobile devices, from electronics via touchscreen engineering to the EM spectrum and orbital mechanics for the satellites that carry the signals. Science really is everywhere, physics certainly as much as biology or chemistry. From the big, abstract picture to the uses we take for granted day to day, physics is mind-blowing. And most of those can be introduced, if not explained, to primary school students. We’ve had too many missed opportunities, so why not make the most of some today?
Find a host of exciting resources on aerospace exploration to inspire your students on the Airbus’ website