2021: Get students excited about STEM

2021 was a year of astounding scientific discoveries. Jane Dowden, education innovations manager at the British Science Association (BSA), explores how STEM teachers can use inspiring science inventions and innovation from 2021 to bring their subject to life

2021 was an overwhelming year during which we faced endless unprecedented challenges. Yet, it was also a year filled with inventions, collaborations and developments which accelerated the world of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) and improved many areas of human life.

From the invention of the Coronavirus vaccine, to the disproving of the dominant theory about the extinction of woolly mammoths and finally, a mission into the outer atmosphere of the Sun, 2021 was filled with inspiring science innovation. 

These practical project ideas will help budding science students challenge their knowledge and skills while inspiring young students to invent, innovate and collaborate.

The Coronavirus vaccination 

In many ways, science saved the world in 2021. Thanks to life-saving Coronavirus vaccines, booster jabs, testing kits, and medical equipment such as ventilators, millions have either recovered from Coronavirus or avoided developing symptoms altogether. 

This momentous effort was carried out by diverse teams of people worldwide, including many pioneering female scientists such as Dame Sarah Gilbert DBE, Catherine Green OBE, and Doctor Kizzmekia Corbett. 

To mark these historical innovations, collaborations and problem-solving efforts that defined 2021, science teachers can encourage their students to investigate ways to improve access to potentially life-saving Covid-19 research.

There is so much information out there about the virus and the vaccines, it is difficult to know where to look and what to trust. You could ask students to research the answers to common questions people might have and present them in a short news story. There are all sorts of ways to communicate science news, including posters, blog posts, interviews, podcasts, and short animations. What will work best for the audience?

Ask students to think carefully about the sources of information they are using and consider what evidence there is to support any claims being made in the news headlines. Students should keep a list of their sources and include these in their news story. Or they could investigate the truth behind the news headlines.  

These activities can help students think about where information comes from and how it is communicated.  

DNA analysis in ancient soils

In December 2021, researchers from McMaster University, the University of Alberta, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Yukon government found an innovative and ground-breaking way to analyse spoonfuls of ancient soil pulled from permafrost in Canada. This soil was fascinating because it contained billions of microscopic genomic sequences from ancient animal and plant species. 

By analysing this soil sample, the scientists discovered a 30,000-year DNA record of past environments and the animals that roamed the Earth. This record revealed mammoths were already in dramatic decline prior to the climatic instability, which was previously thought of as a contributing factor to their extinction, and that human overhunting did not wipe the animals out, contrary to dominant theories. Rather, the soil sample revealed woolly mammoths were around as recently as 5,000 years ago! 

This breakthrough showcases the importance of preserving and archiving permafrost soil samples, which are at risk of being lost permanently due to global warming.

To mark this scientific breakthrough, students could analyse soil in their back garden, to discover which nutrients plants need to grow, and how this may relate to our rainforests. Alternatively, younger scientists could research dinosaur extinction theories, evaluating them and debating their validity in class. Both these activities encourage students to take science into their own hands and make discoveries for themselves, just like professional scientists!

Venture into the Sun 

Three years ago, NASA launched the ‘Parker Solar Probe’, a spacecraft destined to fly through the outer atmosphere of the Sun, described as “the most autonomous spacecraft that has ever flown”. For the first time in history, this mission was achieved on 15 December 2021.  

The spacecraft had to fly at a colossal speed of 500,000km/h (320,000mph) to measure the solar environment with an impressive suite of instruments deployed from behind a thick heat shield. It had to overcome many obstacles to reach the outer atmosphere of the Sun, known as the corona, including the supersonic wind which is accelerated by a flow of charged particles, including electrons, protons, and heavy ions, this close to the Sun’s core.

Additionally, the spacecraft had to withstand incredible temperatures. The Sun is roughly 6,000C at its photosphere, which is the deepest layer of the Sun we can observe directly, but within the corona it can reach an unimaginable million degrees or more.

Parker’s cameras captured these images, depicting the light scattered from electrons in the Sun’s corona

The Parker Solar Probe team earned the National Space Club and Foundation’s Nelson P Jackson Award for their outstanding contribution to aerospace. The diverse team have worked together for decades on this project and this year they collectively made history. 

To mark this incredible achievement, budding scientists may enjoy exploring how rockets work. To do so, they will need to design, make and test their very own model rocket. Students can also measure the heights they achieve and the factors which may impact their rocket’s success. This will help students feel comfortable experimenting – trying, failing, and trying again, all in the process of learning and discovering. 

While 2021 has been a year dominated by doubt and disease, it has also seen breakthroughs which shine an inspiring light in the darkness. Focusing on these incredible feats can help students stay positive and enthusiastic about science, their studies, and their ability to make history.


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