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STEM – We need a new approach if we want to address the skills deficit

This generation of students has grown up in the tech age, yet there is little understanding of how A leads to B, argues Jennifer Morgan…

Jennifer Morgan
by Jennifer Morgan
STEM Club activities booklet
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I am a teacher, a feminist, and a STEM education coordinator – and if I may be a little bold, together, these qualities form a potent mix.

I am an educator who is not only passionate about how STEM is integrated into our schools, but who is also driven to instil in young girls that they possess the agency to determine their own career, particularly through the discovery of male-dominated subjects.

That said, while I would certainly like to see more young women participating in these subjects, the importance of effectively teaching STEM goes beyond the gender imbalance.

During my schooling, I had to take home economics and woodwork. Imbued with gender, absolutely; however, the justification was clear: school was building the necessary skills to support us in the future.

In 2019, though, the skills of the future emerge from studying science, technology, engineering, and maths – STEM education is the new home-ec and woodwork.

Despite my crusade to improve STEM learning, I, like many of my colleagues, am faced with routine challenges. How do we encourage greater enthusiasm for these subjects? How do we bridge the gap between theory and practical skills? How do I turn ideas into action?

Get energetic

Whipping up enthusiasm in the classroom isn’t a foreign concept, but my experience has taught me that this can be more challenging in subjects like computer science and coding.

This generation of students has grown up in the tech age, yet there is little understanding of how A leads to B – they are only familiar with the final output of products.

Faced with blank stares when I embark on the curriculum with new students, I’m always searching for ways to make them hungry to learn and to understand the importance of STEM. And as it happens, one of the most effective solutions is to be found beyond the classroom walls.

Whenever possible, I like to bring tech entrepreneurs into the classroom. Talking about their daily experience and the opportunities that are born from these skills has inspired my students to push their boundaries.

I’ve also found that contextualising this knowledge has increased their eagerness to understand the underlying concepts of the tech products they interact with on a daily basis.

Rethink assessment

As things currently stand, computing is assessed in two ways. The first, a practical exercise demonstrating students’ understanding of coding through real-world applications.

This task is great! The relevance is clear and young people are often excited about the project – however, this grade doesn’t count towards their exam. The second assessment usually takes the form of a theoretical paper that is included in their final results.

Written exams have their place – however, in the context of computing, the emphasis should be on practical skills that reflect the real world: open-source code, collaboration, trial and error.

The challenge here is that when push comes to shove, in terms of time and resources, formal assessment takes precedence over the more valuable practical test. This needs to change.

Experiential learning

The obvious statement then follows – if the form of assessment changes, the pedagogy also needs to evolve to support this hands-on approach. This is where the true power of STEM learning lies.

I have worked with many after-school computing clubs and the enthusiasm from students is undeniable.

At its core, it’s learning through play and gamification, and has been the most effective way of linking programming to output.

I know this to be true because, time and again, when I walk into the room with learning resources like micro:bit accessories or a DFRobot Boson science kit, the students transform.

Their eyes are ignited with a desire to learn, and supporting this curiosity and collaboration creates room for them to excel.

I know our students are in safe hands; my STEM-teaching peers share my passion, and it’s my hope that taking these steps together will see a positive transformation in how STEM is taught in schools.

Jennifer Morgan is the STEM Coordinator and teacher of computing, IT, and business studies at Brentwood County High School.

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