In celebration and appreciation of World Maths Day on the 4th of March, World Science Week starting on the 6th of March, and International Day of Mathematics on 14th of March – let’s talk about STEM (and STEAM).
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are crucial subjects for everyone wanting to grow up and engage in our fast-paced, technology-driven society. Short of hiding yourself away in a wood cabin in the depths of some forgotten wilderness, you’d be hard-pressed not to have some interaction or practical use for STEM. Even in that extreme example, you’ll probably be building traps (engineering, technology), navigating by the stars (science) or ruminating on the fact you no longer have to wait for trains, and counting that as a blessing (mathematics)
Given that STEM subjects are so integral to our everyday lives, why is it they always seem under threat? There’s always been an underrepresentation of women in these fields, teachers consistently report they have low confidence in teaching science, and according to Koren & Bar (2009) “Science is often perceived as unappealing”.
Children’s perception of these subjects is troubling. A recent survey from The Institute of Engineering shows the interest in subjects such as Science, D&T and Computing amongst our 9 – 12 year-olds is dropping by up to 10, 12 and 14 percent respectively.
As Carl Sagan says, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” And I think it’s important, as educators, to ask ourselves why that is.
I think we can all agree that in most cases, after the family, educators are the most important factors in a child’s life for nurturing and developing certain interests and passions. As Anthony from Teaching Personal puts it, “This means primary teachers have a profound responsibility to make STEM subjects as engaging, interesting and rewarding as possible, nurturing an interest in students that extends beyond the classroom”
Research compiled by the Department of Education suggests that school years 5 to 10 are the most critical for developing a child’s attitudes to STEM subjects. But paradoxically, Bennet and Hogarth, 2009 have found children aged between 11 and 14 showed a significant decline when it came to positive attitudes to science.
Like everything, it begins at the beginning. The early years are pivotal to every aspect of a child’s development and even at such young ages, a love for STEM can be fostered. Alison Graham, STEM coordinator at Atkins’ Cardiff office spoke to the Telegraph about the importance of raising the status of STEM to children in primary school. She said not only do the children learn a lot and enjoy the practical activities in which STEM subjects can manifest, it helps tackle other issues such as the gender bias.
The beauty of starting to foster a love of STEM in the early years is that all these subjects rely heavily on a child’s natural skills: curiosity and creativity
Children love to ask questions. If you have spent more than 30 seconds with a young child, you will have learned that the hard way. Half of science is asking questions. As is engineering. Maths, often seen as a fairly prescriptive subject with a lot of rules, is often the one that generated most questions in my classroom. And only about half of them where “Can I go to the toilet, please?”
When approaching any kind of STEM subject, with any year group, questioning should be at the heart of it.
What happens to this biscuit after I eat it?
How come I can’t throw this frisbee into space?
How many stars are there?
How could you get to school faster?
If you live to 100, how many minutes would you have spent on the loo?
As the teacher, you should be doing equal parts asking and being asked. Not all these questions will be answered. But that’s another beautiful part of the experience of teaching and learning STEM. Not everything needs an answer, it’s the process that’s important. The thinking. The problem solving. The conversations it generates.
If there’s one thing children love more than asking questions, it’s making a mess… no, hang on, I mean being creative. The practicality of these subjects is often what makes them appealing. Mud kitchens, sand pits, number magnets, water trays, playdough. These are staples of the Early Years classroom and are invaluable resources when it comes to learning through doing.
Recent years has shown a growing trend in STEAM. This is STEM with the addition of Art. TTS describe STEAM as an “integrated approach to learning that uses all of these subjects to guide children’s questioning, critical thinking and dialogue.”
Settings adopting the STEAM approach are concentrating on interweaving all these subjects and allowing children to explore them through play. An article written by practitioners Jane Blant and Amanda Hubball sees them explaining what each of these subjects can look like and what they can bring to the table.
The most important thing to remember is that these subjects can be so much fun, for teachers and students alike! In my experience they work best when they are child-led, making them even more applicable to the early years.
Edited by Jules