STEM - Need a hand?

20th May 2011 at 01:00
When your subject is changing every day, or you are teaching something you haven't studied for years, support can be invaluable. Helen Beckett finds out what's on offer

The challenge of teaching a subject that is not your specialism will be familiar to many teachers. Qualified teacher status confers general, not subject-specific, certification and teachers are often called on to fill gaps in the school staff. Teaching STEM classes is especially taxing because of the complex and fast-changing subject matter, so it's likely that at some point even specialist science teachers will need help.

The question of how to support non- specialist STEM teachers is about to get more acute following the coalition Government's drive to deliver more specialist physics, chemistry and maths teaching in secondary schools. News that UK primary and secondary maths teachers lag behind peers in competitor nations will heighten its concern. Happily, help is on hand in the form of Government-funded CPD, ready-made lesson plans and various private sector initiatives.

STEM support is more often called for by teachers already in post, as the window of opportunity for beefing up knowledge during PGCE is narrow. That said, Sussex University is one institution that offers enhancement courses for teachers wishing to take places on its physics and chemistry PGCE. Many places this year will be snapped up by biologists, but in the past the university has accepted historians (see box, left), lawyers and entrepreneurs.

James Williams, lead science tutor at Sussex School of Education and Social Work, recommends that STEM teachers add to their repertoire throughout their career. "It takes about five years in a classroom for a science teacher to feel confident that they can teach all science subjects to GCSE level," he says. "Once the teaching begins, the job is to work out where supplementary knowledge is needed."

The National Science Learning Centre (NSLC) is dedicated to providing professional development to help teachers "bring exciting, contemporary science" into the classroom. The network of centres achieves this chiefly through chemistry and physics courses for non-specialists. These plug gaps and deepen knowledge, and also show teachers how to convert their new knowledge into lessons that inspire a future generation of scientists.

Professor Mary Ratcliffe, associate director of MyScience at the National STEM Centre, believes the opportunity for science teachers to step outside the classroom and work alongside other scientists is vital. She says: "What teachers tell us is that they value sharing knowledge and ideas more broadly than is possible within their own school or cluster." Teachers are also tasked with developing a personal action plan of how they will channel the learning gained on the course into their own schools.

The NSLC evaluates teachers who attend its week-long courses on their understanding of physics or chemistry concepts. There were significant increases in teachers' understanding of key concepts, which lasted well beyond the duration of the course, and this was particularly marked in physics. Here, 3 per cent felt they had the necessary knowledge to teach effectively pre-course, compared with 80 per cent three to six months after the course.

The plight of non-physicists who are required to teach physics is a particular concern of the Institute of Physics (IoP). An alarming 20 per cent of schools for 11 to 16-year-olds lack physicists and those schools are hard to support by simply providing access to materials or CPD, says Peter Main, director of education and science at the IoP. "People are a bit afraid of the subject and of using apparatus that is potentially dangerous but can make lessons exciting."

A lack of physics specialists in schools doesn't just result in fewer physics students but depresses the uptake of science generally, says Professor Main. He cites the outcomes of the IOP's Stimulating Physics Network pilot, which sent teams to support non-specialist staff teaching physics. Over four years there was an uptake of triple science at GCSE, and a 30 per cent increase in uptake of physics at AS-level. The IoP also offers summer schools to top up knowledge for non-specialist teachers and mentoring to all those taking six-month subject-knowledge courses.

Aside from enhancement courses or attending a summer school, there are sources of everyday support that can help teachers get a handle on unfamiliar STEM concepts. The TES has its own resource bank with thousands of lesson plans across all subjects designed by teachers and experts and often accompanied by teaching notes. These consist of activities worksheets and video clips and many are peer-reviewed to help teachers make their selection.

Commercial giants in energy, pharmaceutical and life sciences, and a clutch of more esoteric organisations such as the National Space Centre, are also heavy donators of teaching support. These are usually on topics in which they are expert, but are often linked to the curriculum, too. "Typically we tend to focus on energy, the environment and business skills," says Samantha Bulkeley, UK schools education co-ordinator at oil giant BP.

BP also sponsors the Science Museum to create CPD, including a course that gives science teachers discussion skills. "We found that science teachers were less comfortable outside a structured programme of lessons and wanted the tools to discuss science better," says Ms Bulkeley. It's intended to help open up science to students and to make for freer discussion in a field where there are perhaps more questions than answers.

A recent Royal Society report revealed only 3 per cent of primary school teachers have a specialist degree in science, so teaching the subject can be particularly daunting. Oil company Shell has run its education service for 50 years, including CASCADE (Creating Awareness of Science and Developing Education), a programme delivered to trainee teachers enrolled in 12 PGCE courses across the UK. CASCADE is designed to help support them to deliver the science enquiry strand of the national curriculum.

With so many sources of help on hand, perhaps the most important thing for non- specialist STEM teachers to remember is to reach out. As one science teacher puts it: "I hope I will always be able to turn to someone who knows more than me."

Jenny Yarnall, chemistry teacher at Beacon Community College in Crowborough, East Sussex, is an example of how it's possible to build STEM knowledge from an unlikely starting point. After doing a history degree, Ms Yarnell decided she'd like to teach science to 7 to 14-year-olds, and did a chemistry enhancement course at Sussex University to build on her chemistry and biology A-levels. A successful placement at a secondary school was followed by a job offer and she is now in her second year of teaching science.

She admits there have been times when she has struggled with knowledge gaps and delivering lessons, particularly in physics. Fortunately, her mentor is a physics specialist, who has offered fantastic support. "I had to teach Ohm's Law (of electricity conduction) and was daunted by the equipment - I didn't know what all the dials, knobs and units meant. My mentor demonstrated an activity and then I demonstrated it back to her - a rehearsal for the (successful) lesson."

A further enhancement course is in the pipeline to enable Ms Yarnell to teach A-level chemistry. Informal support networks also play a part in everyday teaching, especially the contacts she made during her PGCE. Additionally she makes use of The TES's online resources, choosing activities and worksheets to build a lesson that will suit her own classes.

Support for STEM teachers

National Science Learning Centre CPD, expert advisers, resources

Royal Society of Chemistry Offers outreach, CPD and resources

Institute of Physics Mentoring and courses for teachers

The Mathematical Association Dedicated to supporting teachers

Institution of Civil Engineers Education zone has many resources

National Space Centre Educational programmes for key stages 1-5

The AstraZeneca Teaching Trust Financial assistance to help improve the learning and teaching of science

Shell Education Service Resources and programmes for teachers

BP Educational Service Sponsorship of courses and resources

The TES Teacher-donated resources that are peer-reviewed

The Design and Technology Association The organisation for those involved in Damp;T education and associated subjects

Association for Science Education Works with organisations to share ideas, develop resources and foster CPD

Royal Academy of Engineering The Engineering Engagement Project with BAE Systems offers CPD for teachers and resources for schools.


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