teaching science
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Tanya Howden, Learning Experience Designer at Robotical, underlines the importance of best practice when it comes to teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects

Last year, The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) published research looking at the attitudes of both students and teachers towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. It has been reported many times that these industries are currently in the middle of a skills crisis, with more jobs available than they can fill. That fact isn’t new, but I couldn’t help but feel disheartened at the results of the research that highlighted that interest in these subjects is on the decline.

As a computer science graduate myself, I sometimes struggle to understand how these subjects are not seen as creative and exciting, and instead, I often hear that they are too difficult, boring or ‘just for boys.’ As a society and community, we need to highlight to young people the real-world problems they could solve with their creative solutions from an early age, otherwise, we risk falling behind while other nations race ahead.

The challenge

From a student’s perspective, interest in Science amongst 9-12-year-olds has fallen 10% in the last four years, whilst Computing has dropped by 14%. Girls, in particular, are more interested in traditionally creative subjects like English (38%) or Art (56%), with only 13% considering a job in engineering.

Combine this with three-quarters (72%) of teachers saying that they struggle to fit STEM lessons into an already full curriculum, 57% say they don’t have the resources for teaching STEM subjects, and 42% believe that a lack of student interest is a blocker to STEM teaching, and you start to understand the scale of the problem. The skills gap is fast becoming a national crisis, but it’s not too late to turn it around. However, we must work together as a society to change these damaging perceptions of STEM subjects.

Top tips for STEM teaching

A large part of my job role involves visiting schools and colleges to work directly with the students and teachers in STEM lessons. I have co-led sessions with teachers in schools, alongside running my own code clubs, giving me experience and knowledge on the different ways to create excitement around STEM learning.

Reflecting on these sessions, I have come up with top five tips for teachers who are struggling to engage their class in STEM:

Highlight the creativity in STEM subjects

It is no surprise that English and Art rank highly in students’ favourite subjects, as these are seen as more creative and allow students to express themselves and their interests easily. However, the scope for imagination and creativity is huge in STEM. I often highlight different role models throughout history and keep the scope of a lesson open enough to allow students to be creative to demonstrate the fun side of STEM.

Make use of practical and hands-on sessions

Many of the lessons I can remember from my own school days are the practical ones – a highlight being creating a 3D model of the insides of a computer to demonstrate how it operates (thanks, Mr Aitken!). They become memorable because they were engaging and didn’t involve following basic steps on a screen. Offering students something a little more tangible and hands-on can really help to boost engagement and their excitement to learn.

Use real-life scenarios to explain abstract concepts

STEM subjects, especially coding, involve a lot of abstract concepts. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back from the technology to explore these in more detail. For example, if statements in coding use logic to make decisions. So, before touching a computer, I often sit down with my students for a discussion and we think of everyday situations where we have to wait for a condition to become true before we act, such as waiting for a green man to appear before crossing the road. This helps students feel less intimidated by the potentially unusual structure and syntax when coding at their desks.

Integrate your students’ interests through project-based learning

Although it can sometimes be challenging to find links to students’ interests in STEM lessons, it can help to draw them into focusing on the task. This is where project-based learning can help, with relatively simple goals coming together as part of a larger project. This ensures long-term engagement and allows students to interpret the project scope in different ways and incorporate their own interests to solve similar problems. For example, one student may use a coding programme to replicate their favourite dance, while another uses the same programme to score a goal. The process is similar, but incorporating personal interests really boosts engagement.

Work with students to develop goals and objectives

Throughout lessons, I actively encourage inquiries. I start by asking students what they want to find out from these lessons or what questions they have about the theme we are covering. This helps me to gather personal objectives and empowers them to become more involved in their development. As a result, they are usually more motivated to get stuck into the lessons and find the answers by carrying out the activities or asking others in the class, encouraging collaboration.

The next generation

The facts are simple, we need more people training in STEM fields beyond school. Failing to do that could have serious consequences, with today’s jobs increasingly relying on a skill set that many people simply don’t have. Whilst re-training the current workforce can go some way to plugging the skills gap, this is not a long-term solution. We must look to young people and future generations to lead the way.

This needs to start in the classroom from an early age, but with teachers struggling with a lack of student engagement and resource, solutions must be exciting for pupils, straightforward for teachers to use and effective for decision-makers in schools. These tools, when combined with training and these tips, can help to inspire the next generation of STEM creators that we desperately need.

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