English…done! Reading…done! Assembly…go, go, go! Packed primary timetables can sometimes feel like you’re racing through an army drill. It can be difficult to stop and allow children time for deeper thought and study. Integrating meaningful STEM into the week can often feel like a bit of a headache. Project-Based Learning as a method of teaching STEM could be the solution to this. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths are the four disciplines many schools are hoping to focus on this academic year, looking at an applied and integrated approach.
Unlike simple “topic” lessons, Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a form of enquiry-based, multidisciplinary learning, deriving from a single question. It is student-centred and allows for a dynamic classroom approach where children are encouraged to discuss think deeply upon and explore real-world problems and challenges. Linking PBL driving questions with STEM is the perfect way to facilitate deeper thought and problem-solving in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. The project is framed by an open-ended question in a real-world context and allows students to engage in a sustained inquiry – asking questions, researching, testing, applying information and reflecting. Another key element of Project Based Learning is that at the end of the project, children exhibit and make their enquiry public, displaying and presenting to an audience outside the classroom, preferably linked to the project area itself. Equipping children with the skills to question, test, draw conclusions and reflect upon learning is the very reason why STEM has become so prominent in the primary classroom. There can be 2 or 3 PBL lessons timetabled per week, of which each is multi-subject, multidisciplinary, as opposed to single-subject lessons timetabled.
A project that opened my eyes to the power of PBL for STEM, was a robotics project with a mixed Year 4 and Year 5 class. Our driving question was “How could robots change the world?”. Children initially brainstormed ideas and researched current life-changing robots. The children were inspired by their research; a robot that runs into warfare and picks up wounded soldiers, robotic medical procedures, even a robot that goes to school and reports back learning to a severely disabled child. The class then decided of their own accord, that they would find a problem in life, and solve it with a robot. Initially, I thought they would think of superficial ideas like a robotic Xbox, but their ideas astounded me. One child created an electronic walking stick with GPS, for blind people. Another is a healthcare robot, who visits houses when doctors are unavailable, and the patient is too sick to leave the house! They then went on to design, draw, create, test, refine, gather feedback and reflect upon a prototype for their robot. During this process, they used many STEM skills: deeper scientific thinking, computing skills, electricity, technical drawing, choosing and testing materials – the list is endless! Not only did they develop a variety of learning skills, but they were also fully engaged and immersed in the project, to the point that they ‘booed’ at the end of the school day.
Project-Based Learning, starting from a driving question or inquiry, is a great way to ensure quality STEM teaching at the primary level, and more importantly, spark the interest and engagement of students. Because the children can choose their own direction with the project, it engaged both boys and girls equally, bridging any gender gaps, which can sometimes be seen in Science and Maths. For children to succeed in a highly technological, growing skill-based society, STEM education is key. PBL is an effective way of facilitating hands-on minds-on learning, putting STEM in a real-life context, and supporting children to understand how these skills can be applied to their futures.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine
Sarah Wordlaw has been working in schools across the London boroughs for 11 years. She started as a Teaching Assistant, then Class Teacher and Phase Leader, and is now Assistant Headteacher and Year 6 Teacher at Christ Church Primary SW9, in Brixton. She leads in New Technologies and Project-Based Learning. Follow on Twitter at @christchurchsw9 and @smwordlaw.