The concept of STEM learning is to combine science, technology, engineering and maths to create something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Combining these subjects together can help pupils understand how the subjects they study can be applied in real life. These four subjects support one another, so that an understanding of each benefits the understanding of the others.
I have consulted a number of primary school teachers about the best way to incorporate STEM teaching into their very busy schedule.
Introducing STEM learning into the school timetable
Advice from teachers in England is that the most effective way to introduce STEM learning is to take the science topic for that term and link it to a practical hands-on Design-and-Make STEM project. This means that the children can directly see how the science they are currently learning can be applied in real life.
Due to time constraints, plus the additional burden of catching up after Covid disruption, D&T can fall by the wayside. Using science as a catalyst for STEM learning means that D&T gets covered in the process without having to allocate the additional time needed to treat it as a separate subject.
STEM teaching is also a way to show pupils how their maths learning can be applied in a practical and fun way. Maths can be quite a theoretical subject which doesn’t appeal to everyone, so this gives pupils a chance to put their mathematical skills into practice and understand how useful they can be.
In addition to tying in with science topics, there are two times of year which lend themselves very well to STEM teaching. The first of these is science week, where the whole school comes off timetable and applies itself solely to science learning. Practical STEM Design-and-Make projects are ideal for this.
The second time is at the end of the school year, when pupils are no longer concentrating on learning new material and want to be doing fun and exciting things. STEM activities keep them engaged and help them consolidate their learning without them even realising they are doing any work!
In Scotland and Wales an integrated learning approach is already written into the curriculum. For example, the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland encourages interdisciplinary learning and explicitly supports learning and teaching relating to sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The new Welsh curriculum also lends itself particularly well to STEM learning. It specifies interdisciplinary learning and requires schools to support learners to become enterprising, creative contributors who:
- connect and apply their knowledge and skills to create ideas and products
- think creatively to reframe and solve problems.
It says learners need to acquire both breadth and depth of knowledge and should have frequent opportunities to develop, extend and apply their cross-curricular skills. Here is an example of a project on Ancient Egypt in which STEM Ambassadors were invited into school to help the pupils design, build and test their very own Ancient Egyptian boats.
Using STEM Ambassadors
STEM Ambassadors are adults who work in STEM fields, often in local industries, and volunteer some of their time to come into school and pass on their enthusiasm for STEM to the pupils. If you ask them, they are often willing to come and run a STEM activity in your school. They are also able to explain how the STEM subjects the pupils learn in school can lead to STEM careers further down the line. The most reliable method of finding a STEM Ambassador is through personal contacts. Some of your pupils’ parents might be STEM Ambassadors – you could ask in your school newsletter, for example.
The children were the curators, the engineers and designers. Materials took on whole new personas in the shadowy landscapes. The walls and ceiling became their artist’s canvas, adorned with patterns, shapes and a myriad of colours and hues. It is such a rich source of language from narratives to mathematical and scientific literacy. Words such as transparent, opaque, iridescent were uttered but all were fully grounded in context.
Magical carpet rides, underwater scenes with colourful fish, magical castles, mighty machines can all be conjured up. An ordinary object when placed in the light can be transformed, taking on special qualities. The construction play items and loose parts were utilised to create amazing scenarios.
Otherwise, you can send a request for assistance to your local STEM hub. Here is the link for finding a STEM Ambassador: https://www.stem.org.uk/stem-ambassadors/find-a-stem-ambassador.
If you want to tie in an activity with a particular topic or to run a fun STEM activity during science week then you can mention that in your request. It is best to put in the request 2-3 months beforehand to allow time for a STEM Ambassador to respond and for you both to plan the activity together and locate resources.
Some local STEM hubs are extremely proactive and provide all sorts of exciting STEM activities and challenges, both directly to schools and via their STEM Ambassadors. Below is a link to one such hub whose on-line activities are open to all, not just those within their region: https://www.thestemhub.org.uk/
Sourcing the materials needed
One of the drawbacks of running STEM activities is the need for resources. However, a lot of activities can be done at a minimal cost and using upcycled materials which the pupils can collect and bring in from home. This also encourages recycling, linking to environmental awareness. It is also very useful to know the contents of your school cupboards; in particular which tools are available and also what electrical parts you have if you plan to do any exciting STEM projects which involve electricity.
If you are collecting items such as milk bottle lids for wheels, bubble wrap, egg boxes and other materials for egg parachutes, plastic pots for compasses and transparent plastic bottles for Cartesian divers then you might want to start a while before the activity to give the pupils time to create a stockpile. This will also require space, so it is an advantage to collect small bottles, plastic pots etc.
If you are very ambitious and want to tackle the more exciting projects such as electric cars, renewable energy or programmable projects then you can purchase complete kits with all of the resources you need. Some local companies have money set aside to support local initiatives, and some of the STEM Ambassador hubs have a little funding available to help their STEM Ambassadors to deliver activities.
Some national organisations can be approached to support materials for STEM activities too, for instance the Institute of Physics has a schools grant: https://www.iop.org/about/support-grants/school-grants-scheme#gref and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has a schools and clubs engineering challenge fund: https://www.imeche.org/careers-education/scholarships-and-awards/education-awards/Schools-and-Clubs-Engineering-Challenge-Fund
Many thanks to Caroline Alliston for the content included in this blog.
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