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Working Together: Making STEM happen in secondary schools

2 Jul, 2012
Insect hotels

Design for ‘Insect Hotels’ to increase biodiversity in the school grounds.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are used in a collaborative way in the real world and this interdisciplinary approach often leads to innovations and important discoveries. However, in schools the links between these four subjects are often not made clear and this can lead to students not transferring their learning and skills between different subjects – just because they know how to plot a graph in maths, it doesn’t mean that they know how to do it in science lessons.

Discussing the real-life applications of STEM subjects and the careers available to STEM students,  both within the relevant sectors and also more widely, is also easier and more powerful if the subjects are approached in an interdisciplinary way.

The Wellcome Trust wanted to understand how STEM interdisciplinary learning could be encouraged within schools and develop a range of teaching and learning ideas that would help students to better understand the connections between the four subjects. To achieve this, bursaries were provided to schools within Camden to develop projects that would span two academic years, starting in September 2009.

The schools funded in the Wellcome Trust STEM Initiative developed projects suitable for their students and circumstances. Two main approaches were used – either delivering enrichment activities or adapting schemes of work to embed the links between STEM subjects into the everyday learning of their students.

Enrichment activities ranged from after-school ‘STEM clubs’ with visits to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Royal Institution of Great Britain to ‘STEM weeks’ involving activities such as designing and planting a STEM garden and working towards the British Science Association’s CREST award.

Schools that adapted schemes of work did mapping exercises to find links between STEM subjects and generally focussed on Key Stage 3, where there is more flexibility over what is taught. This led some schools to develop a series of lessons, so that pupils would be working on the same project across all of their STEM subjects for part of the school year.

Solar cars

A student from Parliament Hill School explains to Sir John Holman, Senior Fellow for Education at the Wellcome Trust, how solar cars work.

Projects included ‘Rockets’ – looking at propulsion, forces, measurements and angles and ‘Solar Cars’ – with pupils designing and building the cars. Another school developed a STEM logo that was used by teachers on their PowerPoint presentations to indicate when links to other STEM subjects were being made within normal lesson time.

Schools also sought to raise the status of STEM and did this with displays, STEM quizzes in homework diaries, assemblies and open evenings for parents and students about subject choices and STEM careers.

An independent evaluation of the Wellcome Trust STEM Initiative by the National Foundation for Educational Research identified several factors that ensured the success of the STEM projects. These included having a designated STEM Coordinator, having regular meetings and planning time, providing professional development opportunities to teachers and using outside professionals, including STEM ambassadors.

Bird boxes

Bird boxes made by students at Maria Fidelis School to go in their new STEM garden.

Teachers, headteachers, students, evaluators and others came together for a celebration event at the end of the project and it was great to hear from the students about their experiences and the effects that the projects had on their aspirations. There were displays of the students’ work, from detailed designs for gardens and wind turbines to some of the bird boxes and solar cars that the young people had made. The students were really good at explaining the concepts behind their work and everyone learnt a lot from them.

The ideas developed by Camden schools are described in more detail in the report Working Together. In addition, more detail can be found in the full evaluation report, which is also available to download. We hope that schools can use the information to develop their own interdisciplinary STEM activities or schemes of work and, if you do, we would be really interested to hear what you’ve done.

Emily Yeomans, Project Manager, Education

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