Soaring success for STEM club

18th January 2013 at 00:00
An adventurous team from Broxburn Academy has scooped the Most Dedicated STEM Club in the UK award, as Raymond Ross reports

Building and launching rockets, constructing cannons to fire off tennis balls and creating remote-control cars that can rally over rough ground and even play football are just some of the successful projects undertaken in recent years by pupils at Broxburn Academy's STEM Club.

Indeed, so successful and innovative is the West Lothian school's science team that they were named by STEMNET (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network) the "Most Dedicated STEM Club in the UK" at a special awards ceremony in the House of Lords in November.

The only Scottish team to reach the final, Broxburn fought off stiff competition from two other shortlisted finalists - The Gilberd School and Salford City College, private schools in England - while their physics teacher, Scott Bryce, received a runner-up award for "Most dedicated STEM teacher in the UK".

Mr Bryce and student representatives of the science club have been invited to Cern in Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider, in April, courtesy of the UK Science and Technologies Facilities Council.

"Broxburn Academy is becoming a centre of excellence for science competitions in West Lothian and, more importantly, it is creating more interest in science in the school, which will benefit the whole school community," says headteacher Peter Reid.

Earlier in the year, the pupils won the UK STEM Challenge 9, which was based on the concept of the London 2012 Paralympics torch relay. It asked the pupils to think about the power and possibilities of the energy of physical human endeavour to create a spark to light a flame.

They came up with the idea of capturing the energy from competing Paralympic athletes' wheelchairs to charge a Van de Graaff generator. A representative would then place a hand on the charging generator and a small, safe charge would transfer through it to create a spark to ignite a gas flame.

Beating 150 schools from across the UK, Broxburn Academy won the top prize, #163;1,000-worth of equipment for their STEM Club and a special place at the Paralympics torch relay event.

"To win the Most Dedicated STEM Club in the UK is an amazing achievement for our pupils," says Mr Bryce, who set up the club three years ago to improve engagement with STEM inside and outside the classroom. They beat off competition from more than 450 schools, many of them private with additional funding.

"What is most pleasing is that our pupils cover the widest spectrum from S1 to S5, including not only the more academic but also pupils with behavioural issues or educational needs, such as dyslexia."

The key to success for Mr Bryce is to let the pupils build and create for themselves. "Everyone can build and create. So I start by letting them build and then they have to ask questions and thus learn the science involved. Building a rocket, for example, a pupil will eventually ask: 'How do I orientate the fins on the rocket?' So they have to understand the 'hows' and 'whys' and as you speak, they are learning science - sometimes without even being aware of it. It's different from classroom teaching; you try to let them figure it out along the way," he says.

But the growing success of the club has come at a cost. "Ironically, because we are doing so much we are running out of money for equipment to build and create things, and are now going to have to contact local businesses for support," says Mr Bryce.

"We attended the Big Bang Science Fair in Perth in June to share all our projects and were, as a result, awarded the accolade of top STEM Club in Scotland. Now we're the 'Most Dedicated' in the UK, which is based on the number of challenges we have undertaken.

"But we want to be the top STEM Club in the UK, and that means being the best academically as well as the broadest-based. So we need to raise the funds to go to the UK Big Bang Fair in London in March in order to compete. This is what the pupils want to do and it is their club."


Catriona Salvini, S5 STEM Club student:

"We put a lot of our own time into the STEM Club, including weekends and holidays, especially if competitions are looming. I spend up to four or five hours a week on the club.

"We work as a team. It's all about building stuff and having fun - and the competitions are the bonus, but they give us opportunities we wouldn't get otherwise.

"Going to the House of Lords, I was quite nervous. We met Rolf Heuer, the head of Cern. It was surreal to meet him. I mean, he's someone you hear about but never actually expect to meet.

"We're really looking forward to visiting Cern and to getting inside the (Large) Hadron Collider and seeing how it works. The thought of going there is still bizarre.

"But we're used to doing different - and challenging - things in the club, like firing a rocket made of balsa wood and cardboard 100 metres into the air.

"I think the most dangerous project was the cannon made from Pringles tubes encased in a plastic down pipe from which we fired a tennis ball successfully at the second attempt.

"We stood well back when Mr Bryce lit the fuel - it blew a hole in the plastic bucket it was standing in.

"I've always wanted to be a lawyer, but I'm thinking now maybe a scientist."

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