STEM learning: A spark of inspiration

Chris Calver, Education Manager at Rapid Electronics, looks at why teachers need to inspire and motivate pupils to succeed in STEM

I’ve been involved with STEM education for over 16 years now. Although when I started working with schools, we didn’t call it STEM which seems to be a relatively recent term. 

But regardless of the terminology, we have always had the same goal: to inspire students.

Something that I have noticed in recent years is that the word inspire, or one of its tenses, has become the lazy marketeer’s default descriptor for the latest STEM product or initiative. It’s become as much of a buzzword as STEM itself. 

The thing that these marketeers seem to have forgotten is that inspiration is the tip of the iceberg, it’s the spark that lights the fire and not the fuel that keeps it burning.

We don’t just need to inspire students, we need to motivate them. Motivate them to carry on when the going gets tough, motivate them to push themselves further when success comes easily and motivate them so that they themselves become an inspiration to others.

Some years ago, I was working regularly with the STEM club of a local school who wanted a long-term project that the students could really get their teeth into. They also needed to include some programming because this wasn’t an area they were covering at the time and so a robotics project seemed like the ideal candidate. We gathered together a group of students from years 8 and 9 to introduce them to the VEX Robotics Competition which had just launched in the UK. After talking through the aims of the project and showing the students some YouTube videos about the competition, they were inspired! The rest of the session was an energetic melting pot of gabbled excitement and chatter amongst the students of building robots and heading for competition glory. 

In the next session, reality set in. None of them had designed and built a robot before, so we tasked the students with building the very simple robot from the instruction booklet that came with the kit. It wasn’t a robot that was suitable for the competition but it was robot that worked, taught the team a lot about assembling something with nuts and bolts and gave them a platform on which they could learn to write code. These small successes gave them the motivation that they needed to continue and over the next few months they worked to build their first competition robot.

When the day of the competition arrived, the minibus journey had the same electric excitement as the first session many months before. Again the chatter was of the prospect of winning, the pride of returning with silverware and bringing glory to the school. But, much like it did after that first session, the reality soon hit home when the standard of the competition became clear. For a while, like the first few matches of the competition the motivation seemed to be lost and the students’ heads were dropping. Then something changed – one of the team members had some ideas to improve the robot. Ideas that were inspired by some of the other teams that were competing. There was the spark. The spark lit the enthusiasm that was fuelled by the motivation to get some success from the competition and with an improved robot, they went on to finish a respectable mid-table. The journey home had the same atmosphere as the one in the morning, an electric excitement about next year and the progress that would be made.

I went on to mentor these students right the way up until they completed year 13. In that time they had learned about mechanical engineering, electronics, programming and CAD – all things they would not have covered in their day-to-day curriculum at the time. 

This incredible wealth of academic, practical and life skills that they had gained was the result of a spark of inspiration and a bucketful of motivation.