Engineer a new attitude

7th March 2008 at 00:00
A Glasgow college has found the formula to woo pupils to science and technology courses

It was the (in)famous saying of one Miss Jean Brodie, concerning science teachers and their pupils, to "leave them to their jars and gases".

The results of a recent study on the Relevance of Science Education, led by the University of Oslo, would seem to indicate that pupils throughout the developed world have been heeding the fictional teacher's advice.

The study shows that among 14- and 15-year-old pupils in more than 40 developed countries, very few want to become scientists, especially the girls. They are also turned off by technology - a subject towards which even boys tend to be ambivalent.

However, Stow College in Glasgow seems to be bucking the national and international trend for falling pupil numbers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Its success in attracting increasing numbers - 120 applications for advanced science courses this year alone - was recognised in February, when the college was invited to deliver a paper to the 2008 World College and International Association of Colleges Conference in New York. The subject was International Collaboration to Strengthen College Uptakes in Science and Engineering.

Carlyn McNab, head of science and health at Stow College, says: "Our presentation was well received by 1,000 or so delegates, and now we hope to set up links and partnerships with colleges around the world to develop and share good practice."

But how has the Glasgow college achieved all this?

"A modern STEM curriculum must bring the subject to life and address the impact that science and technology has had - and will have - on society," says Mrs McNab.

"We want to see more engagement between learning institutions and employers, and better provision of continuing professional development for STEM teachers. You have to link the subjects to everyday life and work, making them relevant. And courses should be oriented to employment. That means it's about applied science, if you like, rather than pursuing theory or pure science for its own sake," she says.

Making STEM subjects relevant and up-to-date means addressing issues such as global warming and sustainability, which are prevalent in the media, to demonstrate the usefulness of the subjects to pupils. But good industry and higher education links are also important in attracting and retaining students.

Stow College is a leading provider of science and health studies among Scotland's colleges, and has strong links with the NHS. In pharmacy and radiography, for example, it "upskills" radiography helpers to become radiographers' assistants, while opening doors for these students to enter university at second-year level to study subjects such as diagnostic imaging.

In engineering, the college has strong links with industry, with large companies such as BA Systems and Rolls-Royce, and it holds an annual Employability Day, where engineers talk about work and career prospects.

Working with schools, the engineering technology department has also developed a "co-delivery model" to attract pupils to the college.

Alan Roseweir, head of engineering technology, says: "We teach the new skills for work qualification partly in schools and partly in college. But college and school staff deliver the course together in both establishments.

"College and school staff working together in the classroom or science lab shows the pupils how strong the relationship between college and school is. It makes the transition to college more inviting and it allows us to show pupils the opportunities beyond school in STEM subjects.

"It's about the whole FE experience," he says. "We engage with Standard grade, Intermediate and Higher pupils and show a clear progression route through Stow to employment or higher education."

The co-delivery model began with four schools last year, and next year the number of schools involved will more than double.

Mr Roseweir believes the model is already having a significant impact on how pupils perceive engineering technology. He sees that already they are more willing to experiment for themselves and have developed good note-taking practice.

"You have to make the curriculum interesting and exciting by making it hands-on and practical," he says. "We can see that pupils are learning the importance and relevance of school maths, because they are now applying it to engineering.

"The same is also true for the core subject of English. It's not just that they have to write up their notes on experiments, but they see that a good command of language is essential for industrial work. And they are learning that teamwork is a very important core skill for industry."


Stow College's strategy of making science, technology, engineering and mathematics interesting, relevant

and practical is well demonstrated by the work of two HND biomedical science students.

Jennifer Querns and Scott Tsuro are conducting a study into the effectiveness of a new antiseptic against MRSA and other hospital-acquired infections, the only one of its kind nationwide to be carried out by college students.

Their study has already shown that the disinfectant, which is relatively new on the market but commonly used in hospitals and care homes, effectively combats known strains of MRSA. The students will be feeding these results back to the NHS before testing it on a range of lesser-known, but equally dangerous, hospital-acquired infections.

"It's really good to know that my college research project will be helping the community," says Scott.

The students' supervisor, Robert Risk, a clinical microbiologist and section leader in science and health at Stow, says: "We try to encourage our students to study areas of science with relevance to everyday life, and to search for findings that will have a clear, practical use.

"This project is not just helping to develop Scott and Jennifer's scientific knowledge, but is also teaching them about the importance of socially responsible science and its relationship with citizenship."

Jennifer says the college and the project are helping her to achieve her potential. She intends to go on to university and hopes to land her dream job as a microbiologist with the NHS.

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