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Inspiring STEM

How can we inspire today's schoolchildren to be the scientists of the future? Naomi Webb reports

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | September 11, 2016 | Primary

Less than 15% of people working in STEM occupations (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are women, and few teenage boys profess a desire to become physicists or laboratory researchers. But what can we do about this? How can we inspire today’s school children to become scientists of the future?    

Challenge their perceptions

One of the biggest challenges we face is building self esteem and confidence. As The Atlantic points out, STEM subjects are rarely intuitive. Instead, they require repeated trial and error, and a lack of confidence can really stand in the way of a child pursuing science into higher education. 

Therefore, the first and most important ‘fix’ is to help children believe that they’re capable of understanding difficult subjects. We need to praise skills such as hard work, perseverance, discipline and focus, rather than ability, talent or intelligence. 

Organise for a professional to get involved

Another way of inspiring children is to give them someone to look up to. That’s what Abbotsbury Primary School did, asking NASA astrophysicist DR Kawan Rostem (an uncle of one of the children) to get involved with a school science project.

The children benefitted from having an expert to look up to – particularly when learning about such a difficult topic. Partnering schools with experts in the field would undoubtedly help children to see that a career in science is a possibility for them, rather than a distant dream. 

Organise for a celebrity to inspire children

Similarly, organising a celebrity to speak to a group of students is another excellent way to encourage them to embark on a STEM career. Celebrities (such as Rachel Riley who recently spoke to children at the Red Arrows) can use their influence to encourage girls and boys to really consider the future that is open to them. Riley said: “My message here today is that anything is possible”, inspiring children to pursue science, maths, technology and engineering. 

Keep kids up to date with the media

Also, why not use social media and television to encourage children into science? Childrens’ television channel CBBC reported on Tim Peake’s space mission, getting youngsters excited at the possibility of going into space or devising the kind of technology that facilitates space exploration. 

Make science documentaries a regular part of their television diet

Similarly, making science documentaries a regular part of childrens’ screen time will help to make subjects feel relevant and exciting. For instance, children who watch nature documentaries such as those narrated by David Attenborough, or physics documentaries such as those presented by Professor Brian Cox, will come to the classroom with a genuine curiosity for teachers to nurture and develop further. 

Make learning fun and accessible

We can also inspire today’s school children to become scientists by making the way they learn about science fun and accessible. Chemistry, biology and physics are often challenging subjects, so utilising particular mediums such as videos, songs and gaming is a great way of communicating key learning objectives. Periodic tables can be understood and memorised through catchy songs like this one, and learning to code can be achieved through games played on computers, smartphones and tablets.

Inspire and encourage

Finally, it’s important that we challenge prejudices and preconceptions about careers in science if we’re going to encourage children to become the scientists of the future. We need to make a particular effort to dispel untrue notions such as, “maths isn’t for girls”, and “only geeky boys are good at physics”, if every child is to believe that a scientific career is a genuine possibility for them.  

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