Any teacher will tell you that one of students’ most common questions is “Why am I learning this?” A good teacher will have an answer ready. A great teacher would have answered it before being asked, in the context of the lesson they have delivered.
Teachers of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects are perhaps better placed than most to give a good answer, as these areas are rich with real-world applications. They will also be able to link most of the topics they’re teaching to specific careers and pathways, making the lesson that much more relevant.
But, as A T Kearney’s Tough Choices report for the Your Life campaign in 2016 reveals, pupils are generally ill-informed about the importance of Stem subjects and how they can lead to bright and successful futures. There is a shortage of pupils learning these vital skills, limiting their prospects in almost every career, particularly ones that are increasingly technology-driven. We teachers must introduce these pathways into our lessons and reinforce a positive message about post-16 Stem education.
Engineering is a multifaceted field, which pupils often assume is solely to do with constructing buildings. Dispelling this idea can be the first step in inspiring them towards it.
In the study of mechanics in physics and maths, for example, pupils learn how to find the centres of mass of two- and three-dimensional shapes. Using this grounding, you can set up an interesting and engaging activity by asking them to find the centre of mass of a can of drink. Easy, they reply. The symmetrical nature of the object makes it straightforward to find the axes of symmetry.
But suppose you wanted to balance the can on the rim of its base. How much liquid would be needed to make sure the can didn’t topple? Some of your pupils might suggest pouring out and adding liquid until the can balances, but your emphasis should in the first instance be on theory – calculating the amount needed before trying it out. Once they think they have the answer, provide students with a can and set of scales to test it.
This activity brings in all sorts of ideas from physics and maths: moments (the turning effect of a force), trigonometry and volume, as well as centres of mass. These calculations are fundamental to engineers who want to ensure that buildings and cars stay upright, or that the propulsion of a space rocket will not cause it to rotate. It’s a beautiful harmony of theory and application, and offers a clear insight into a small part of the role of an engineer.
Want to extend the learning? Summon a lift. It’s an unusual place to conduct any lesson but it does provide a fantastic opportunity to experience Newton's laws of motion. In small groups, pupils can go into a lift with a set of scales. One pupil will stand on the scales and the others observe what happens to their weight as the lift ascends.
The initial acceleration and final deceleration seem to imply the pupil is heavier and then lighter, but dissecting these events using Newton's laws will enrich students’ understanding. In the design and manufacture of the lift, engineers had to consider these effects, and calculate what the appropriate acceleration and velocities should be.
They would also have needed to factor in counterweights, tension, friction and the lift's capacity, which are all concepts familiar to physics students. Discussing how such a common object was constructed should further demonstrate the wide variety of areas in which engineers are involved.
Hitting the heights
Pupils can often see statistics as a dry subject. But show them something concrete to apply the figures to and their opinion can change. One simple idea is to measure pupils’ heights and weights, and get them to plot a scatter graph to illustrate the correlation between the two. After that, they could plot a line of best fit and estimate its equation; an A-level group could go further and calculate a correlation coefficient and regression equation. They could then use these lines to predict a person’s height given their weight, and vice versa.
You could use the data to examine the idea of a “normal” height-weight ratio and its implications in areas as far-ranging as the body mass index or how clothes manufacturers estimate the number of each size garment to produce.
Extend this activity even further by examining the use of averages and the application of the normal distribution – a key concept in statistics that links in with drug trials, among other areas. This leads on to discussion of how scientists calculate how much of a drug should go into each dose and its measured effects on people of different sizes.
This continues into the uses of statistics in biological modelling and how this field underpins the work of biochemists. Statistics has become increasingly relevant and there has never been a better time to illustrate how it is a gateway to all sorts of careers.
Oiling the wheels
Chemistry experiments are often naturally engaging, particularly when they mirror large-scale industrial processes. A particularly stimulating experiment is the fractional distillation of crude oil. This uses basic school laboratory equipment and can be demonstrated or conducted as a practical with any class from Years 7 to 13.
The experiment helps pupils understand how chemicals are obtained from oil and used thereafter, whether they are gasoline, jet fuel or other useful hydrocarbons. This is associated with careers in organic chemistry such as plastics and the development of synthetic materials for use in almost everything.
You could examine a multitude of interesting industries here, but a particularly interesting discussion might be about the growing and lucrative area of cosmetics. Chemists measure the reactions of our skin in response to metabolic and environmental influences, using this information to design cosmetics. Pupils may be surprised to find that the experiment they have just conducted could ultimately help to enhance beauty and address skin problems.
Whatever a pupil’s motivation for asking “Why?”, they deserve to be answered. For all we know, enriching a topic with that depth and background may be the inspirational moment that propels them into a Stem-related future.
Miren Jayapal is deputy head of maths at a school in London
Your Life’s new careers website Future Finder connects today’s A level subjects with tomorrow’s jobs. Visit: futurefinder.yourlife.org.uk to begin your journey.