Seven ways to improve STEM education in your primary school
A former STEM Co-ordinator and now Assistant Head, Dr Tracey Ellis shares guidance on how to improve the teaching of STEM.
Here at All Saints’ in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, we have set up an exciting new project to overhaul the delivery of STEM subjects for all age groups.
Throughout the school, we work hard to create a positive climate that is geared towards continuous improvement by supplementing the curriculum with relevant and meaningful tasks for pupils that combine knowledge, skills, understanding and creative fun.
We already had exceptional mechanisms in place for safeguarding, nutrition, physical activity, citizenship and more. It made sense to apply that passion for innovation and progress to our delivery of STEM subjects.
As a former scientist and STEM Co-ordinator, I was keen to bring my experience into primary science. It’s just the start at All Saints’, but we’ve already seen positive results! Here’s a guide to how your school can take a similar approach.
1. Start with pupils' questions
A child’s natural inquisitiveness leads them to ask a lot of questions, so our STEM project has given pupils the vocabulary to formulate questions and the freedom to answer them.
When running teacher training workshops, I always say: “start with pupils’ questions and build from there”. We celebrate pupils’ ‘wonderings’ and place those questions at the heart of our teaching – we may even base a unit of work around a specific question.
As a science educator, it’s always encouraging to be asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, so it’s healthy to say that we don’t have all the answers. As scientists, pupils or teachers, we’re all discovering new things every day.
By giving pupils ownership of their learning, we can foster an open atmosphere that helps us to take all pupils on the journey.
2. Break down barriers between subjects
STEM subjects should be considered inter-dependent rather than separate fields of study. At times we’re in danger of losing the links that build both a broad set of skills and help pupils to think independently.
Synthesis of knowledge is key here – and I would always recommend seizing opportunities to link multiple topics to a real-world situation.
My work with a local teaching alliance has shown that sometimes as teachers we find it easier to think about subjects in silos. However, it’s important to address those misconceptions to avoid any negative impact on pupils’ learning.
3. Secure buy-in from the school community
Our top priority when overhauling STEM delivery has been to open the eyes of staff, parents and governors to the connectivity between STEM subjects.
There are selling points for all stakeholders: greater workload efficiency for teachers, budgetary efficiency for governors, parents who are delighted to see their children engaged in the world around them, and pupils who become passionate about new subjects.
We want to open pupils’ eyes to the full range of STEM careers by showing the links between different STEM disciplines. We know this generation wants to make a meaningful impact in their careers, and this can be a powerful motivation for primary schools to harness.
Parental engagement was another top priority: we started with a display at parents’ evenings, updated the website with a STEM-specific section and made more information available about digital leaders and maths challenges. We’re also creating a STEM-specific newsletter for the school community.
4. Cohesive curriculum design
Designing an entirely new STEM curriculum is a daunting prospect, so you have to be brave!
It’s important to step back and take a broader view, but with time to reflect you can identify new ways to improve efficiency by building cross-curricular links. I would recommend establishing a road map with a clear goal, but be flexible in how you approach that goal by adapting in response to feedback.
A cohesive curriculum should be rooted in pupils’ experiences, their questions and their ‘wonderings’. Then you can look at the syllabus and tie the two together.
‘Science capital’ is also a useful concept when re-designing a curriculum: this approach has found that pupils are better prepared to take learning on board when it relates to their day-to-day life. Whether you’re in Cumbria or Tower Hamlets, make sure you personalise and localise learning.
5. Think 'efficiency' when investing in tech
We wanted to get more technology into classrooms – not just laptops and tablets, but other tools like digital microscopes or data loggers. We worked with the PTA to fund some new technology, which also helped to create a buzz about STEM.
Our teachers started to use data loggers and electronic pulse monitors to generate new data from various experiments – so thinking outside the box means one or two pieces of kit could have a range of applications in the classroom.
We also have programmable robots that we use in Geography, but they can be used right across the STEM curriculum by linking coding to mathematics and product engineering. With diminishing budgets, multi-use science kit saves both time and money.
6. Take inspiration from the real world
Primary teachers are usually generalists and its relatively rare to find specialist science educators in a primary school. Delivering science as a non-specialist can be daunting, particularly with so much equipment that could go wrong!
However, there’s plenty of high-quality support available. One of my favourite websites is the bp educational service, I regularly use the resources during teacher training to build up teachers’ science background and to illustrate the quality of support available.
Science Explorers from the bp educational service is a great starting point as it’s specially designed for non-science specialist primary teachers. Support from an organisation like bp also provides pupils with real-world learning opportunities.
It is also important to find time to talk about major science stories in the news. These are often awe-inspiring for pupils, helping everybody to feel plugged into incredible discoveries and inventions. Pupils want to see that their learning leads to real change, not just exam results.
7. Measuring success
We look for a hierarchy of skills, starting with basic motor skills at Foundation through to observation and evaluation skills in Key Stage 2, while key process skills such as questioning, recording data, drawing conclusions and presenting your findings are developed through each year group.
The national curriculum’s current section on Working Scientifically in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 gives great support in this area. However, we also try to underline process skills and transferable skills throughout their learning. By Year 6, we have national expectations in place and we work from those, but we want the majority of pupils to go beyond those expectations.
We’re recording attainment in science subjects and measuring progress against older data sets, pooling data for science, computing and mathematics to build a bigger picture of progress.
There’s also an immeasurable, intangible element to success. Everybody can learn to ask the right questions, not just in science but across the curriculum. If you want a quick gauge of how your class is progressing, think about the questions they ask and the scientific language they use. Success and engagement among pupils always come back to their interest in the subject.
STEM as a unified idea
Our ultimate objective is to synthesise pupils’ science knowledge so they’re prepared to discern their own answers in a rapidly changing world. We firmly believe that engaging our pupils in STEM from Foundation onwards will help them to consider further study and careers after they leave our guardianship.
When pupils think in a ‘connected’ way, they’re better placed to achieve good results. In that sense, we don’t call them science or engineering lessons – it’s always about ‘STEM’ as a unified, coherent idea.
For 50 years, bp has been working to address the STEM skills gap through targeted investment at all levels of education.
All bp educational service resources are free to access and have been tested with teachers. Register or log in today to find out more.