Why STEM matters by @tomrees_77


As you read this, the International Space Station is currently travelling around the world at approximately 17,100 miles per hour, some 200 miles above the earth’s surface. In the time between the BETT Show opening and closing, it will have completed just over 50 orbits of the earth and within the titanium walls of this truly incredible feat of multinational engineering, floats my new favourite Twitter celebrity and astronaut, Tim Peake, taking his incredibly complex daily chores in his cool, amiable stride in the way that perhaps only a military pilot-turned-astronaut can.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Tom Rees and published with kind permission.

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And somewhere in his life, I’m willing to bet that a teacher who was passionate about Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths, gave him the time, attention and inspiration to want to find out more about Science, space and how the world works.

Watching the launch and following the events of the first UK Astronaut to visit the ISS is hugely inspiring to me and has surely added more wind in the sails of the STEM movement across the UK. But if astronauts alone aren’t enough to make you want to rush into school tomorrow and bleat continuously that we should be doing more to develop this area further, one could always take a reality check from the CBI/Pearson Education & Skills Survey (July 2015) which reiterates the familiar picture that there just aren’t enough professionals in the UK who are skilled in the ‘STEM’ areas.

According to the report, just over half of UK businesses (52%) have a shortfall in experienced STEM-skilled staff with 46% reporting that they are aware of problems amongst their employees in basic IT skills. That’s an awful lot of people in employment who aren’t up to scratch, either at the basic or experienced level and, as schools, we have to look this one squarely in the eye and do more.

‘There are widespread difficulties in recruiting people with STEM skills at every level, from new entrants to train as apprentices to people with more than five years’ experience of STEM-related work… The STEM crisis can only be addressed by business and education working together’.

(CBI/Pearson Education & Skills Survey, 2015)

The gender gap is alarming too, ‘disgraceful’ even, according to Nicky Morgan who, in one of her earlier speeches, highlighted the shocking statistics that the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe (just 9%) and that only 14% of entrants to engineering and technology first degree courses in the UK were women. I do hope that our Education Secretary will be able to report more positive statistics sometime soon; I predict, however, that this will be more of a slow burner which will require continued attention from successive governments and Education Secretaries.

But whilst the Government is getting bogged down with the politics of religion in schools and the predictable, counterproductive march towards more standardised testing in the 3Rs, much work still remains to be done on the broader STEM agenda. The word ‘Technology’ appears to be out of favour with OFSTED and high influencers at the DfE. It would be helpful if those with responsibility for empowering future generations would bang the drum a little louder for a highly skilled, creative and digitally fluent next generation. Whilst there has been an array of initiatives sprinkled across schools in recent years such as cash incentives for Secondary Maths & Science teachers, links to industry and continued government funding for the STEMNET project, the next step must be bolder and should now focus more on a STEM ethos within our schools.

‘ArtSci’ – A SHIFT towards STE’A’M Thinking across schools…

[pullquote]Children must have opportunities to learn through projects and problem-based learning which require them to apply creatively the skills that they have mastered throughout the curriculum[/pullquote]

A vital shift in thinking is for schools and policy makers that really needs to happen is making STEM less about specific subjects areas and more about the holistic learning ethos and learning design within the school. This will develop the types of thinkers and learners that we need for the future. Collaborative, digitally-fluent problem solvers with a curiosity to ask ‘why’ and ‘why not’ cannot be developed through traditional classroom practice with a narrow focus on discrete teaching of academic subjects. Our children must have opportunities to learn through projects and problem-based learning which require them to apply creatively the skills that they have mastered throughout the curriculum. They should be given opportunities to chase red herrings, fail, fail again, reflect and evaluate within the classroom. They must also move beyond the ‘I’m finished; what’s next’ mindset and develop the habit of creating something and then prototyping it several times before moving on, whether this is a piece of writing, a choreographed dance, a watercolour of a satellite or an online game created collaboratively in Scratch by a group of children from different schools across the world.

We also need to myth-bash the common misconception that a focus on STEM is to the detriment of other subjects, such as the arts, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. As Ann Myers & Jil Berkowicz articulate in their must-read book, The Stem Shift: A Guide for School Leaders,

‘There is a new culture forming in which art, science and technology are inseparable. The arts serve a STEM environment and support the development of young innovators. Those have been the domains of creative thinking and motivated learners. Add them to the mix of STEM, and a new environment emerges. The trend toward interdisciplinarity within the sciences and the arts leads to ‘ArtSci’.’

Whilst the change is system-wide, it must start and be most evident in our Primary Schools as too many children are arriving at Secondary School already switched off from Science. The 2015 CBI ‘Tomorrow’s World’ report is clear about this issue and suggests teacher CPD and squeezed curriculum time as key issues to address; areas which are only too familiar to those of us in Primary Schools juggling too many balls and trying to fit the quart into the pint point. It will also take the OFSTED and DfE rhetoric to join the 21st Century and hold schools to account more directly in this area for real progress to be made.

‘By the time that young people reach secondary school, many have already ‘switched-off’ from science – deciding that it is not something that they want to pursue. If we are to tackle the growing shortages of science-based skills in our economy, we need to ensure that children are engaged in and enthused by science from the beginning of their education. (Tomorrow’s World: Inspiring Primary Scientists, CBI – 2015)

I’m delighted to be ‘Resident Headteacher’ in the Microsoft Showcase Classroom this week at The Bett Show where I’ll be working with a number of teachers across the UK who are all leading innovation with technology in their schools. We’ll be looking at how new technologies such as the micro:bit will be giving more opportunities for innovation in schools, how the phenomenon which is Minecraft might be harnessed within the classroom and how other Microsoft technologies such as OneNote, Sway and Office365 are being used by teachers across the UK. Alongside the inspiration and innovation, we’ll also look at practical steps that schools can take to help develop STEM back in the classroom such as how teachers can be upskilled within technology and how problem-based learning and ‘Design Thinking’ can provide a curriculum structure to encourage 21st Century pedagogies.

When BETT is over and it’s back to school, here are 5 areas of focus that we’re working on to develop STEM further at Simon de Senlis and across the Northampton Primary Academy Trust in 2016.

  1. Redefine Learning: The #RedefineLearn conferences and activities joining up teachers from across the world are really inspiring opportunities and we’re hosting a number of these at Simon de Senlis where School Leaders from across the UK can come and take part in the debate and hopefully pick up ideas and inspiration to take back to their schools. Practices such as Design Thinking, Flipped Learning and 21st Century Learning Design are all examples of areas that schools are using to innovate across the curriculum and develop the learning habits and skills that we know children need.
  2. Micro:bit With a million free micro:bits about to land in the hands of Year 7 students across the country, there’s a lot of interest and discussion about how different schools will plan for the learning opportunities these offer. As an Academy Trust working under the Microsoft Showcase Schools Programme, we will also be giving micro:bits to all our primary students. I’m really excited about seeing how 2,500 primary age children will respond to this opportunity and the potentially many and diverse ways that they will be used across the curriculum.
  3. Staff CPD – I wrote in a previous article about ‘just in time training’, a concept where training is organised in a more fluid way so that staff can access it when they need it, not when it happens to come round on the staff meeting schedule. Since then, there has been a relaunch of the Microsoft Educator Community which now offers all free online training to all school-based staff via a badged accreditation system. Rather than assign this development to staff meeting times, I’ve offered our staff a day off in lieu in exchange for achieving completion of various different training programmes so that they have flexibility to learn as and when they are motivated and need to.
  4. Gaming & Gamification: Last year, my biggest takeaway from BETT was understanding the difference between ‘Gaming’ – a game you play and can usually win or lose at – and ‘Gamification’ – where extrinsic rewards similar to those found within games are used to motivate people such as badges for professional development, competition between groups, classes etc. This year, I’m fascinated in how teachers and children across the world are developing learning within Minecraft and how we might tap into the huge motivation and engagement that the majority of our learners have within this game. The badge reward system within the MEC is a good example of how professional development can be gamified.
  5. ‘Design Thinking’ – This curriculum approach which we first developed at Simon de Senlis 3 years ago with Peter Ford and Ewan McIntosh from Notosh provides us with a creative process using stages such as Immersion, Ideation & Synthesis, Prototyping and Showcase/Evaluation.       Our next steps are about redeveloping more of our curriculum topics so that they work within this structure and developing further the skill sets and mind sets in teachers and students that are required within Design Thinking.

But for now, enjoy the BETT show! Find Inspiration. Meet colleagues who you will know in 10 years’ time. Play with some technology you’ll never buy. Debate things you are passionate about. Most of all, take back some conviction to make positive change back in your schools so more children have the opportunity to develop a passion for, and expertise within, STEM.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if, when we’re all too old and wrinkly to be teaching or leading schools anymore, the UK was leading the world in Science and Technology and our Schools & Universities were the envy of the world?

Wouldn’t it be worth it if the children in schools across the world today were the ones who work together to find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s and make actual inroads into reversing the effects of climate change?

And maybe, just maybe, one day a child who’s learning in your school today will look down on the earth from space and remember the teachers and school that inspired them to get there.

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