STEM - Seeing the light

20th May 2011 at 01:00
A science event sparked by the Olympics or a visit to a working lab can inspire a young mind to pursue a career in STEM. Duncan Jefferies discovers some hands-on experiences

Many young people are in the dark when it comes to STEM subjects. They fail to see how their physics or chemistry studies are relevant to their own lives and often struggle to visualise what it is that an engineer or scientist actually does. Moreover, some teachers and parents do not know enough about the subjects to recommend them as a career. In a 2008 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Sir James Dyson said: "Engineers, like scientists, conjure up stereotypes of bearded men with questionable taste in jumpers. This misrepresentation of science and engineering jobs puts young people off what, in reality, has the potential to be a bright, exciting and profitable future."

Government, schools, universities and private enterprises are trying to address these issues. The hope is that by explaining the different careers on offer, and providing more visits, hands-on experience and teacher training, the number of children choosing to pursue STEM-related careers will increase. But convincing pupils of this - particularly during the crucial years between key stages 3 and 4, when GCSE study and apprenticeships are being considered - is dependent on resources and engaging teaching methods.

STEMNET, which provides teaching resources and acts as a bridge between industry and schools, is one organisation that is out to challenge students' (as well as teachers' and parents') misconceptions. The STEM Ambassadors Programme sends more than 24,000 STEM role models into schools, where they help to deliver the STEM curriculum in fresh and innovative ways - judging competitions, providing career support, or delivering "day in the life" talks. Volunteers include apprentices, zoologists, climate change scientists, engineers, nuclear physicists and more. They cover a wide range of ages, backgrounds, gender and ethnicity, and represent over 1,500 different employers.

Around 180 AstraZeneca employees are involved in the programme. Dave Ainscough, AstraZeneca's business relationship manager, has run an after-school STEM science club (part of the STEM Club Network) for over eight years along with a changing roster of other colleagues, many of them young andor women. "When kids see young people who are dressed like them, yet working on world-leading medical research, the look on their faces, and their teachers' too, is like 'right, OK, it's not all a lab-coat environment. These are normal, enthusiastic young people'," he says.

After-school STEM clubs can complement the curriculum - but they are not about writing, tests or exams. The principal aim is that pupils should have fun doing science. "It could be that a B grade goes to an A*, but it could also be useful for someone who might not actually get a GCSE," says Kirsten Bodley, acting chief executive of STEMNET. "They can still have a wonderful experience, which might help them decide to take a vocational route into those sorts of careers."

Phil Critchlow, science co-ordinator at Black Firs Primary in Congleton, Cheshire, organises his school's STEM club. He says the children who attend become far more engaged with classroom STEM teaching: "The scientists are usually doing different experiments from the ones we do in school, so it doesn't always tie in with the schemes of work we have, but that doesn't really matter," he says. "The kids pick up the enthusiasm from the scientists about what they're doing."

Mr Critchlow says the experiments are designed to reflect the world as students experience it - and to be fun. "They were making slime the other day, and we've done some other interesting ones like measuring the volume of gas in a bottle of Coca-Cola. That's really interesting for the children because it's amazing how much gas is actually in there. You can say to them: 'That's why you end up burping - you've got that much gas inside your tummy.' That kind of real-life situation really bring things home to them."

A dedicated group of AstraZeneca scientists run the club. Mr Critchlow says: "It's changed over the years as new people have come in. We meet every half-term, and there are seven schools in our cluster. There are usually about six children from each school, so there can be as many as 40 children there."

On a somewhat larger scale, on 22 June students from all around the world will be able to do a chemistry experiment together, based around the theme "Water: A Chemical Solution". It is called the Global Experiment and is being organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). One-off events of this kind are another great way to get children engaged with STEM. But concerns have been raised that many schools are not able to conduct some of the most interesting and exciting classroom experiments on a regular basis.

Lord Winston, speaking at the opening of a new laboratory for school pupils at Imperial College London, said: "What we know from research is that hands-on, practical work, doing experiments, making explosions, is what gets children excited about science. Unfortunately many state schools don't have adequate laboratories or resources to support this level of practical science."

The RSC is equally worried about the decline in practical chemistry in schools. It argues this should not be blamed on health and safety legislation, which does not ban any of the chemicals or procedures likely to be used in school-level chemistry. In fact, as Jon Edwards, a spokesperson for the RSC, says, teachers often "vastly underestimate the kinds of chemistry they are allowed to do".

As well as running a training course - chemistry for non-specialists - the RSC has created a virtual lab environment to try to address this. Called Chemistry LabSkills, it allows teachers and students to practice skills in a virtual environment before lab sessions, building their confidence and demonstrating what is possible. "You can make sure you're doing it correctly and safely before you do it in the lab," says Mr Edwards.

Visiting a company lab, power station or manufacturing plant can bring children face to face with scientists in an environment that simulates, or is actually based within, the world of work. The Life Science Centre in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria, for example, is working with AstraZeneca to offer students a chance to take part in laboratory experiments with expert scientists.

"The ethos was to have the lab set up as an industry lab, rather than a school one," says Jackie Wilbraham, RD science policy director at AstraZeneca. "You could be walking into an AstraZeneca or any other science-based industry laboratory - there's definitely a wow factor." Feedback from teachers has been positive. "The evaluation process shows that it is making a difference back in the classroom," Ms Wilbraham says. "Pupils are more motivated, and that spreads to other pupils as well."

Industry is keen to draw on pupils' competitiveness and offers them challenges based on STEM activities. BAE Systems' School Challenge encourages children to develop original ideas around engineering design scenarios.

Jaguar Land Rover has developed a series of national challenge projects for schools, which also aim to bring science and technology to life through hands-on experience. "We now have hundreds of schools across the UK and further afield which take part in them," says Les Ratcliffe, head of community relations at Jaguar Land Rover. "It adds a bit of excitement to classroom-based learning."

The Jaguar sponsored GT in Schools challenge is an annual competition for 12 to 18-year-olds to design, model and race a car using CADCAM software - a design process closely associated with the real-life automotive industry. The Land Rover 4x4 Challenge operates in a similar manner, with 14 to 18-year-olds designing an all-terrain remote-controlled vehicle for competition. The Jaguar Cars Maths in Motion Challenge, meanwhile, is an annual competition for children aged nine and upwards, which encourages them to use their maths skills in a Grand Prix-style race.

For those pupils who like their cars even faster, the BLOODHOUND project has plenty of ideas and opportunities to get involved. Supported by companies such as Intel and Promethean, BLOODHOUND already has 4,000 schools involved.

Making maths fun and competitive is also the philosophy behind Mathletics, a web-based learning tool that covers KS1 to A-level. It has two main components: Live Mathletics, which pits children against other students from around the world in speed-based mental arithmetic games; and a teaching and learning environment based on the full curriculum. Its points-based system rewards students who challenge themselves rather than revisiting concepts they have already mastered.

Live Mathletics' UK and worldwide leaderboards are key to the programme's appeal. "It's quite challenging for students to get on the leaderboard, but once they do they have got global recognition," says Jayne Warburton, chief executive of Mathletics UK. "Suddenly they're no longer somebody who finds maths a bit difficult. Their name is in lights."

Real-world live events can also get students and teachers engaged with STEM. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games partner, is running the Scientists in Sport series of free events between now and the Games, working in conjunction with King's College London and other universities such as Loughborough, Liverpool John Moores and Exeter. "It's about using sport, sport science and the Games to give a slightly different slant on science, and inspire and excite children," says Diana Evans, London 2012 partnership manager at GSK.

Students from the Harris Academy Falconwood in Kent have already benefited from the scheme, which launched on 22 March, as well as other GSK STEM initiatives. "The STEM activities are very hands-on, very educative, and they allow the kids to become more aware of the science around us," says Nikky Aderanti, science co-ordinator at Harris. She finds the response from students who get involved in STEM clubs or one-day events is typically positive: "They didn't realise such things were possible. They didn't realise the opportunities out there for them."

Another live event, the Big Bang Fair, is also popular with children and teachers. Live versions of Sky One's Brainiac and the BBC's Bang Goes the Theory took place, and Brian Cox was on hand to judge the finals of the National Science amp; Engineering Competition.

Mr Edwards says TV science programmes like Bang Goes the Theory and Professor Cox's Wonders of the Solar System make a difference to children's enthusiasm for STEM. "Having it (science) on television means that it's not this ivory-tower subject that only the very, very clever kids do. It's something you have seen on the TV in prime time, something that everybody can have a go at."

It is not only students who need to learn more about STEM. Teachers should also be up to speed on the latest research and thinking (see pages 31-33). Project Enthuse, launched in 2008, is one scheme aimed at improving their CPD. A national bursary scheme supported by companies including Rolls-Royce, BP and Vodafone, the project enables teachers to take part in sessions at the National Science Learning Centre in York.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva also runs several teacher-training programmes. Around 300 teachers from the UK visit each year, allowing them to experience an international research centre that includes instruments like the Large Hadron Collider. CERN produces lesson plans, recorded lectures, games and other resources that allow teachers to build on what they have learnt once back in the classroom. "We are trying to be catalysts of a reaction which goes through the teachers into society," says Rolf Landua, head of the education and public outreach group at CERN.

It's an ambition anyone trying to get children to engage with STEM subjects will understand.

Useful links

BAE Systems

Chemistry LabSkills

The Global Experiment


Jaguar F1 Challenge, GT Challenge

Land Rover 4x4 challenge

Jaguar Maths in Motion




GSK Scientists in Sport

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