2018 has been declared the year of engineering by the UK government as part of “a campaign to tackle the engineering skills gap and widen the pool of young people who join the profession”. The country is threatened by a STEM skills shortage as more young people turn away from the sector. Stakeholders within the education and STEM industry are increasingly looking for innovative ways to encourage the uptake of STEM related subjects at school after GCSE’s. In my experience of working with young people in Essex to promote the sciences, I have seen first-hand the high rate of young people who turn away from taking up STEM related subject at higher education. Biology and Physics is usually the first of the sciences to be dropped after GCSE.

To understand how best to support the STEM experience at school, it is important as science communicators that we understand the dynamics of lessons in schools. A few hours in a school with a select group of pupils is by no means an indication of requirements. This week, I arranged with a local school to have an experience day. This was a main stream school and not a failing, private or grammar school. I observed and supported four lessons until lunch time and spent the afternoon interviewing some teachers. (I’ll write about the teacher interviews in a different post). At the end of the day, I came away contemplating four things;

  • 1-      Private / home schooling education for my kids,
  • 2-      How I can enrich my kids learning experience outside school
  • 3-      How best I can support my local schools so there is a change in the attitude towards STEM by young people.
  • 4-      Perhaps I’ll better serve as a school teacher.

My first lesson was with a year 12 chemistry class. They were about 12 in the class and they were having a lesson on the properties of the various group of elements. The lesson was interactive and the kids were engaged. It’s a familiar topic from GCSE although some struggled with the more complex reactions. I was pleased.

I then moved on to a low ability year 10 class and just as the teacher before warned, I was in for a shocker. It was a class of about 30. Half the lesson time was spent controlling the class due to 1 or 2 disruptive kids. The teacher was doing his best to encourage the kids to appreciate the lesson on the earth’s atmosphere and how it has changed over the years. I spoke with a number of the girls about why they were so disengaged. One particular girl just went on about how dump and unworthy she is, another girls said she was bored and a third said she just wants to do sports and doesn’t need science. One guy said, he’ll be working with his dad who is a builder and electrician and he doesn’t need to be in school. Unfortunately the few who were paying attention and wanted to learn couldn’t maximise the lesson time as the teacher’s attention is taken up with the disruption. As a science communicator working to build a science literate society, how can we engage these kids?

My next lesson was with a year 8 class and the lesson was on particles. It was a practical lesson. After the teacher’s introduction, the kids had to work in groups and each group given salt and water at various temperatures. The aim was to investigate how temperature affects dissolution. When each group called out their reaction times at the end of the practical, it didn’t follow the expected trend and I wasn’t surprised considering the chaos in the lesson. I doubt the kids understood the applications of understanding how particles behave with different conditions. If anything at all, they were having pointless fun playing with water and salt. I asked two kids; do you understand the science behind your practical and the answer after a laugh was ‘not really’.

Considering a class size of about 30 and 1 teacher, how can science communicators support schools to deliver effective practical science lessons?

The final lesson of the morning was another year 8 class and it was a biology revision lesson. The aim was for the kids to get use to the habit of revising, as according to the teacher, they struggle with self-study come GCSE’s time and at further education.  For the 1 hour lesson, 1 table I went to were discussing Instagram and snap chat, of the 20+ questions they had to revise through practise they barely made it past 3 questions. A couple of tables were focused on the task. One girl who was being distracted by her noisy table decided to sit on the side by herself so can get on with the work.  Although the kids had their text books to help with the questions, several of the answers were wrong. With a 1 hour lesson, there’s no time to check everyone’s work nor is there time to review the questions with the class.

It was only 1pm and I was exhausted. With the exception of the year 12 class, every lesson had disruptive kids who were sent out of class for a period of time, every class had kids who wanted to learn but could not maximise the lesson time and every class certainly needed a teaching assistant for lessons to be effective.

There is a definite need for school initiatives and for science communicators to work with schools to change attitudes to STEM among school kids if we are to bridge the STEM skills gap threatening the country and create a literate society.