Ultimate STEM Challenge brings students together

Vicky Parson, science teacher at InterHigh School, talks about online science education and how her students prepared for the Ultimate STEM Challenge

Two students from online secondary school InterHigh competed in this year’s Ultimate STEM Challenge final at the Science Museum on 12 March.

InterHigh set out in 2015 to create an independent online secondary school that offered a fresh relationship with learning. Students are given control over their learning and direct access to teachers during and after classes.

We spoke to science teacher Vicky Parson to find out more about how InterHigh works in practice, and how the school is helping students to collaborate across borders on projects like the Ultimate STEM Challenge.

How does InterHigh work in practice, as a complete online secondary school and sixth form college?

InterHigh operates across Wey Education’s state-of-the-art learning platform. From an online log-in, students access the teaching and learning area with a ‘virtual classroom’ for live lessons on each curriculum subject.

During lessons, teachers can create opportunities for students to complete group work in different ways – for example, students in a class can be organised into ‘breakout rooms’, where they collaborate to complete tasks. This happens in real time, even though they are located apart geographically.

Students communicate using microphones, video and text chat both in the main lesson and in breakout rooms.

Homework can be completed independently or in groups. For group projects, we give students opportunities to develop their ideas work during lessons and then encourage them to build upon this work in their own time, without teacher supervision.

How does the technology support collaborative project work when students are working remotely?

The Ultimate STEM Challenge is actually the first time we’ve participated in a collaborative competition, so it was a learning process for the school too!

We set the challenge to all students in Year 9, giving everybody the opportunity to participate in whatever way possible. We looked at the wonderful Ultimate STEM Challenge resources on the BP Educational Service website, discussed them with our classes, and then set students free to pursue their own ideas.

Students worked together over email and the learning platform, which was incredible to watch in real time, especially with students from different countries and cultures! We saw ideas for moisture capture, hydroelectric power, vertical farming and innovative potato farming.

The two students who reached the final managed to meet up in person on a few occasions, which they organised themselves. This enabled them to complete a working water turbine, before they compared it with a second design under control conditions.

What did the students learn from the Ultimate STEM Challenge that they might not have learnt from a normal lesson or project?

Being at an online school encourages the students to be resourceful and to make the most of powerful digital tools at their disposal, a process that prepares them for the world of work.

Our students also became adept at working independently, developing their communications skills and engaging with their classmates in new ways. As they live in such a variety of locations, they are more globally aware than other children their age, so the opportunity to link up with like-minded peers is invaluable.

Projects like the Ultimate STEM Challenge give them the opportunity to explore ideas in a less rigid format, and we saw their creativity and curiosity flourish as a result.

What are the main challenges when students collaborate remotely, and how do you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges for us comes when completing practical science work. We can overcome this by setting homework activities that encourage students to make use of simple resources available at home – it’s surprising how many experiments can be conducted with ordinary materials available around the house! However, some day-to-day challenges are the same as any other school – for example, motivating quieter students to engage and participate.

Students’ ability to privately message their teacher makes a real difference, as we can speak in confidence and directly respond without making them feel self-conscious. In fact, the volume of questions asked by students during lessons is astonishing! Surprising questions with difficult answers are much more common at InterHigh, in my experience.

We also use online polls to set students hinge-point questions which they can answer immediately and without their classmates seeing. For open questions, we can set a poll, reveal to the class the answers (which are anonymous) and talk about the best ones – it’s fascinating to see the variety of ways a group of students will tackle the same question, and they take more risks with their answers when they know that their classmates can’t see what they have written.

What are your hopes for the future at InterHigh? And as a teacher, what has working at InterHigh taught you about learning that other schools might benefit from?

Students here are given limitless opportunities to complete work in a way that suits them. They are simply amazing at using technology to demonstrate their ideas and often go about submitting work in really creative ways, such as making a video or producing a web page rather than written work. Recently a student wrote a rap about genetic modification and cloning, recorded it for her homework and then performed it live, accompanied by her guitar, in a lesson!

Students bring their experiences of the world around them to science lessons, so the diversity in class brings much more vibrancy.

We’re also hoping to participate in next year’s Ultimate STEM Challenge, when I will ask our current Year 9s to mentor the new entrants. By giving guidance and advice on what worked well and what didn’t, I think we can continue to enhance their learning experience.

Sign up now to be the first to hear about the next Ultimate STEM Challenge launching later in the year.

About InterHigh School
InterHigh School is a complete online secondary school delivering a fully interactive, accredited British education for Key Stage 3, IGCSEs, AS and A level courses. Find out more at www.interhigh.co.uk

About the Ultimate STEM Challenge
Aimed at younger secondary school students yet to make their GCSE choices, the Ultimate STEM Challenge is a nationwide schools competition inviting students aged 11-14 to put their STEM skills to the test by tackling real-world problems.

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