STEM challenges – 5 reasons your school should take part

Rickmansworth School’s head of science explains why setting up a STEM club and getting your school involved in appropriately-themed subject challenges is a no brainer…

Drew Thomson
by Drew Thomson

As head of science at Rickmansworth School, British Science Week usually means getting in guest speakers, taking over assemblies for each year group and focusing on science themes wherever we can throughout the school.

The benefits outweigh the barriers

This year, however, I was invited to join a panel of judges at the Science Museum to select the winner of the BP Ultimate STEM Challenge – a nationwide competition ran in partnership with the Science Museum and STEMNET, which invites 11-14 year olds to tackle real-world energy problems using STEM.

Seeing the proud faces of teachers and the excitement of the students delivering their projects at the final reconfirmed for me the value of taking part in STEM-based projects and challenges.

As a teacher, I know all too well the daily struggles of increasing workloads, examinations and accountability – but in my opinion, the benefits of extra-curricular STEM activities far outweigh any perceived barriers. Here’s why:

1. Stretch and challenge

The best classroom practitioners incorporate real-life examples of STEM into their lessons to inspire their students; many of the lessons I see have students being stretched by their teachers through application of their lesson content to real-life contexts. This is not always possible, however, due to time and curriculum constraints, and that’s where a STEM club is hard to beat.

STEM clubs are a vital component of a rich and challenging STEM curriculum, and one that all schools should expect of their STEM departments. For any member or leader of a STEM department, it must be at the top of their priority list.

2. Importance of STEM for all

The influence of a STEM club and STEM challenge will extend beyond those students taking part, raising the value of the subjects for all students.

Enthusiastic STEM club members will talk about it with their friends. The club’s activities should be widely advertised and discussed with different year groups via assemblies and classes with individual teachers.

That could in turn lead to a bigger uptake for the STEM club, and have the further effect of improving the status of the STEM subjects amongst students outside of the group. It is also an ideal opening for schools to promote A-Level options and career pathways, as part of wider efforts to increase the number of students taking on such subjects post-16.

3. Skill development

Lessons in STEM subjects with well-designed curricula will naturally present numerous opportunities for students to develop relevant skills in practical work and in problem solving. These are the pillars on which STEM education is built, so it’s important to provide students with the option to take this further; to challenge themselves to use and develop these skills outside of lessons.

Entering your STEM club into a competition or challenge will provide the perfect forum in which students can have some time, without constraint, to practice their skills, giving them confidence in their ability to tackle real-world problems.

4. Crossing the curriculum

You will often hear enthusiastic department members in staff rooms talk about the many opportunities there are to develop cross-curricular links. There are many units of work that share similarities across different STEM subjects – something you can take advantage of by planning your schemes of work to fit around each other.

Students themselves will often fail to make links between subjects, and instead compartmentalise their skills and knowledge, keeping ideas confined to the specific subjects in which they learned them and struggling to apply them in a broader context.

What a STEM club does is give teachers and students the time, space and freedom to play with these departmental links, while increasing students’ awareness of the interconnectedness of STEM subjects and the transferability of the skills and knowledge they have gained.

5. Valuing students and STEM

Student work and contributions during lessons are valued, of course – but the additional prestige that can come with recognition from an external organisation is hard to replicate through other means.

STEM challenges offer an invaluable opportunity for students to work together in order to solve problems, and be rewarded for this through the receipt of official certificates or prizes.

It is equally important that this involvement is recognised by the rest of the school, through praising those participating in assemblies, form time and STEM lessons.

This will serve to place more value in these students, and in the school’s STEM subjects as a whole.

Read more about women in STEM.

You might also be interested in...