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The STEM commandments: Irene Bell

Charley Rogers talks to Stranmillis University College's Irene Bell about UK STEM provision, and what developments have been, and are yet to be made

Posted by Julian Owen | October 16, 2017 | People

What are the biggest issues in STEM education at present? 

There are so many areas within STEM that are active and vibrant at the moment. These include raising the profile of science, particularly in primary schools, ensuring that teachers are upskilled to deliver the technology and digital technology curricula, the introduction and initial development of engineering into the curriculum, and tackling raising standards in mathematics. Digital technology including computing and computational thinking are under a lot of focus and scrutiny. Different countries are on different stages of this journey and the confusion in the associated language used in these discussions is not helpful. Also, there are important ethical issues arising from the use of technology in the classroom and these must be addressed as STEM is constantly expanding and evolving.

What is the biggest difference in STEM teaching now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago?

The obvious response to this question is the developments and integration of technology within teaching and the classroom. The pace of this change can be daunting to teachers and very often the pupils are ahead of the teachers. There is also a positive shift in primary school towards ‘learning through play’ and bringing creativity into STEM areas. For example, in primary science the theory is wrapped up in storytelling, using puppets and connecting the science theory to everyday or historic events.

In computing we encourage children to adapt the learning strategy of ‘trial and improvement’. It is also exciting to see initiatives such as ‘learning outside the classroom’ developing momentum where so much science and mathematics can be incorporated and utilised. Pupils, even the very youngest, can bring their portable digital devices to the ‘outside classroom’ to aid their recording of a natural science event, experiment or observation. Project-based learning, such as the work of the Greenpower Education Trust, whose objective is to advance education in the subjects of sustainable engineering and technology to young people, brings STEM into a real context. This approach of placing learning in context shows pupils how the mathematics, science and engineering that they learn in the classroom plays a vital role in real life.  

However, I think teachers having access to information and fantastic resources made possible through the internet is a major step forward. Not only do teachers have access to relevant professional sites and resources, but most professional communities allow teachers to seek advice from subject and pedagogical specialists in named aspects of teaching STEM. The crux of the scenario in this case is that teachers know the sites to use and what is available to them.

How do the UK’s STEM teaching and achievement measure up to global leaders such as Canada and Hong Kong?

There is no simple answer to this question. There exists variation both between countries and within the countries themselves. Different countries may also have placed emphasis on a specific aspect within STEM which is particularly relevant to their research or industry. If we were considering computing then we would be discussing how countries around the world are looking at how ‘Computing At School’ (CAS) have led the way, initially in England, and subsequently the other regions within the UK to bring computing/computer science into the English curriculum at all levels.

There is currently a debate within Europe on the role of computational thinking, and we look forward to the outcome of that research. At Stranmillis University College we have STEM partners in America and China and all partners bring to the table good practice in the pedagogical approaches that have developed in each institution. The use of technology makes this collegiality possible and brings a totally different depth and richness to our work in STEM.

What are the most influential resources in addressing the issues in STEM education?

Teaching children to think in a logical and systematic manner addresses all areas within STEM and indeed I would go as far as saying that this is a life skill. Teaching computational thinking, with its many ‘unplugged’ freely available resources, addresses issues such as computer or internet access. A major source addressing this issue are the free CAS Barefoot resources on computational thinking. Fully aligned to the curriculum of each part of the UK, they not only offer ready-to-use lessons and supporting materials, but free CPD for schools within the UK. Other resource banks such as the NASA website for educators provides so much quality material. A key strength in successful resources is that they are produced by teachers for teachers, therefore they have credibility. 

But the most influential resource in a classroom is the knowledge of the teacher. Governments must seriously address the issue of upskilling teachers – irrespective of the Key Stage in which they teach – in the new developments in their area. Industry has a valuable resource in their staff and facilities. Establishing a network between industry and schools of mentoring teachers and supporting schools would certainly positively contribute to promoting several strands of STEM development. 

Irene Bell

How have developments in edtech influenced the way STEM is taught?

Edtech at a high level has opened up the STEM world for educators and their pupils. It provides networking opportunities, factual information and knowledge within their area, resources, and updates for the teacher in preparing for their teaching. There are so many positive aspects to this. However, the question is whether edtech is only reaching the group of teachers who are still enthused and excited about driving forth the STEM agenda. 

Ideally, we want all pupils to experience this and so we need to think about how we reach those teachers who are not engaging totally with the opportunities that exist out there. Sometimes, a ‘face-to-face’ learning opportunity for the teacher is better. All schools will have a network provider and there are opportunities through this avenue to reach those teachers who could be encouraged to step outside their comfort zone.  

Edtech should not be about the hardware or device that is being used but about the quality of the learning that is taking place. Edtech should be about adding depth and richness, giving that ‘value added’ element to the learning experience. Even within the areas of computing and computational thinking, the device being used isn’t the important factor, it’s the content and teaching that will determine the successful use of technology in education.

How do we balance equal-opportunity, comprehensive STEM education with the financial boundaries faced by schools?

STEM education must start on the first day of schooling at the latest. While children are young they are still open to ideas and attitude formation. Exposing children to STEM, in an age-appropriate manner, allows them to make decisions on what STEM is, who it is for, and how it is important in their life. The key factor is that teachers have the knowledge and skills to deliver interesting, exciting, and accurate STEM education in their classroom. The skills required include not only imparting subject knowledge, but presenting it in a manner relevant and stimulating to the age phase, academic ability, and Key Stage of pupils in their educational journey. 

I would like to see ‘Lead Schools’ at nursery, primary and secondary level which work within their learning community to bring new initiatives, and maintain curiosity and excitement in their subject expertise. These schools could be twinned with a relevant industrial partner and provide not only the aspects that feed directly into teaching, but also with their industrial partner the incidental teaching of career opportunities and female role models. I believe this is a cost-effective and efficient approach to ensuring that STEM education is delivered by qualified, confident, enthusiastic teachers.

Would it be possible for learning communities to share a ‘lending library’ of physical resources in all aspects of STEM to overcome the financial difficulties experienced by schools, while ensuring that all pupils have access to the latest developments in STEM? I strongly believe that learning within science, computing, engineering, or any other aspect within STEM education starts at an early age and should not be left to KS2 and above.  

Should STEM education focus more on skills and application than specific knowledge? 

STEM education must focus on both. While STEM occupations might focus on specific subject areas and knowledge, there exist very few jobs that do not require STEM skills such as numeracy and ICT. The pace of change in technology and the advances in research in STEM subject areas also means that our young people must be resilient to change, and be flexible and continually open to learning new skills. There is also an expected growth in STEM occupations and opportunities, so these skills are becoming even more important. Additionally, we do not want STEM graduates to present themselves to the workplace lacking in the softer skills required, for example to engage in teamwork or make presentations. Schools need to develop young people that are ‘rounded’. While young people are achieving excellent examination results they still need to develop the skills required for the workplace.

What developments in UK STEM teaching would you like to see in the next five years?

Technology could be exploited further to open every classroom to national and international STEM colleagues in education and industry, and make the acquisition of knowledge and resources easier for the teacher and the pupil. Pupils would benefit from observing and sharing with students in other parts of the world. Pupils and teachers should be aware of the exciting innovative work that is happening in engineering and space, in medicine and in technology. It’s all about raising the profile of STEM and ensuring that pupils know this is an area which is dynamic, evolving and exciting.  

However, I am conscious that STEM is a continually changing area and we are asking a lot of our teachers to continually ‘keep on top’ of developments. Therefore, I believe it would be advantageous to education and industry to establish STEM teacher ambassadors whose role would be to provide upskilling to colleagues in their learning communities. At one end of the scale this could be as simple as a localised STEM newsletter for teachers, distributed electronically and kept teacher-friendly.

Slightly more advanced and requiring financial input would be a teacher-led network of STEM experts from education and industry whose role would be to produce and deliver professional development relevant for teachers of all age phases. Schools and teachers showing expertise would gain kudos and merit while society and industry should see a rise in the quality of STEM delivery in schools, feeding directly into industry and third-level education. 

Stranmillis University College

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