Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The future of STEM education and current best practices

MARCH (MAke science Real in sCHools) is a network of European partners aiming to share innovations and best practices in secondary STEM education. On 15th November 2016 MARCH held an international conference in London to talk about the future of STEM education and to showcase current best practices.

I attended the conference to broaden my understanding of issues relating to education - as an educational neuroscientist I often feel like I should be an expert in psychology, neuroscience, and education! I feel very comfortable at psychology conferences (as my background is predominantly in psychology) but neuroscience and education conferences can sometimes take me out of my comfort zone. Since this conference was about STEM education it was perfect for me as my research concerns science and maths reasoning. Throughout the day I noticed three recurring themes, which I will explore here.

The context of many discussions was that there are STEM jobs that need filling and will continue to need filling in the future, yet there is low uptake of these subjects in late secondary school and university. It seems that young people do not aspire to be scientists. This is despite high ratings of interest in STEM subjects. Theme number one is therefore that links need to be made between STEM education at school and STEM careers. If pupils are enjoying STEM subjects but not wanting to follow these careers, it suggests that they have not received adequate careers advice. Indeed one speaker said that many pupils say they want to be managers - but they don't appreciate that a good way to become a manager is to be a scientist or engineer. Making explicit links between classroom STEM and STEM careers could increase uptake of these subjects at a higher level.

One way of making this link is through direct communication with scientists. During the conference we heard about I'm A Scientist, Get me out of here, an online forum for students to ask questions of scientists. This has been hugely successful in the UK, and is now running in many other countries, enabling pupils to see scientists as normal people, and to get a realistic idea of what their jobs entail. Theme number two is communication between schools and scientists. Educators in the audience wondered how they could find scientists to come and speak to pupils in person. As a researcher, I often meet the parallel problem of not knowing how to contact teachers that might be interested in being involved in research. Means of contact between schools and scientists are starting to appear but this is an ongoing struggle. One that has been around for a while in the UK is the STEM Ambassador programme: schools can request scientists to come and speak to pupils. A newer initiative is Speakezee where schools (or other organisations) can browse profiles of potential speakers and invite them to speak at their event. Something that works in the other direction - providing researchers with an opportunity to find willing teachers - would be excellent! As far as I know such a platform doesn't yet exist.

In terms of the future of STEM education, a common hope of speakers was that teaching and learning would move towards a problem-based approach that covers many subjects. Theme number three is therefore interdisciplinary learning. Although the building blocks of education will need to stay the same - subjects such as maths, English and history will continue to be taught - the manner in which they are taught is hoped to take a more interdisciplinary approach. Teaching according to problems that span school subjects might help pupils to see how STEM is relevant to everyday problems and to consider it within a broader context. One way of enabling this is to bring learning experiences outside of the classroom. While this sometimes happens in schools, the suggestion was to increase the regularity of these experiences and to show how they are more than just occasional treats for pupils, but valuable learning opportunities.

Linking STEM education to careers, encouraging communication between schools and scientists, and taking an interdisciplinary approach to teaching are all actions that can be taken to try to improve learning but also to encourage pupils to consider STEM careers.


Follow the hashtag to read tweets from the day: #EuroSTEM

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  1. Another way of linking schools and scientists is through a great initiative called Letters to a Pre-Scientist. Pupils and scientists are paired as pen pals and communicate throughout the year by letter. This is a great way for young people to get an idea of what scientists do every day, and for scientists to share their enthusiasm for their work. Here's the link: http://www.prescientist.org/

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