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What is STEM Education? Facts, activities, blogs and quotes for teachers

What does STEM stand for and how can you implement it in the classroom? Find out here…

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Most teachers will be somewhat aware of the importance of STEM, but you may be looking for guidance for how best to implement it in your school. The good news is, you don’t need to be an expert in the vein of Albert Einstein or dedicate huge amounts of time and resources to it. Read on to find out more.

Download a free six-week series of STEM lessons here. Pupils will learn about six simple machines and how they transfer force from one place to another. The download includes a PDF medium term plan, worksheets, PowerPoints and teaching notes.

STEM subjects

What does STEM stand for, you may be asking. The acronym stands for:

  • science
  • technology
  • engineering
  • mathematics

What is STEM?

STEM education is all about connecting classroom activities and experiences to real-life opportunities. Instead of treating science, technology, engineering and mathematics as separate subjects, it’s a cross-disciplinary approach that is all about solving problems. For instance, the problem might be that you want to create more habitats for bugs and insects on your school grounds. Pupils will then have to investigate where minibeasts like to live, and come up with a suitable solution.

It might seem strange to start preparing very young pupils for their future careers, but making real-world links is really important. A STEM primary education introduces children to the idea that mistakes are normal and, in fact, can be seen as a positive because they help you to move on to something greater.

Still wondering “What is STEM education and why is it important?”. This video will give you a quick overview.

STEM education facts

If you’re looking for STEM education fun facts to share with pupils or colleagues, take a look at the below facts and figures:

  • By 2024, around 2.5 million jobs requiring science, engineering, technology and research skills will need filling (Tomorrow’s Engineers programme)
  • Engineering accounts for 25% of gross value added for the UK economy (Royal Academy of Engineering)
  • 32% of primary pupils agree that they worry about science lessons being “too hard” (2019 survey conducted by the Wellcome Trust)

STEM education UK strategy

While we’re all aware of the importance of STEM learning, there’s currently no mention of it in the primary national curriculum for England.

Many schools teach it outside the curriculum via a STEM club. This doesn’t have to run all year, or even every week, and might incorporate any aspect of the subject, from gaming to growing vegetables. Once your club is extended, you can enter pupils into national competitions or challenges.

STEM education and training strategy for Scotland

The Scottish government published its STEM Education and Training Strategy in 2017.

It aims to expand and improve STEM education in schools by supporting a three-year £1 million fund to boost primary science learning and providing funding for CPD, among other strategies. Find out more here.

STEM learning

A play-based, or scenario-based, approach can be an effective way to teach this subject. Pupils should be enabled to lead their own investigations, following their own particular interests.

Nicola Connor, a primary teacher at Peel Primary School, suggests giving pupils the chance to investigate resources and materials before you use them in your lesson. Ask pupils what they think they are going to be learning about before formally introducing the topic. Touching, feeling and observing will all help pupils to learn.

A play-based approach to STEM learning is a great way to get children engaged, as they’ll all want their ideas to be heard.

Andy Snape, assistant head at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, suggests that playing Minecraft and building LEGO are both excellent examples of children engaging with problem-solving, hands-on activities, describing them as “having a foot in both camps of play and learning.”

STEM activities and STEM projects

A background in a STEM subject is not necessary for being a great STEM educator. All you need is a real-life question or scenario to get things started.

When trying STEM based activities in the classroom, try and keep your task input to a minimum. This gives children the chance to come to their own decisions about how to solve the problem they’re faced with.

Even though it’s hard, try and stand back and let pupils make mistakes as they work, offering additional information where necessary.

STEM activities don’t have to be lengthy science projects. Quick tasks, such as using marshmallows to build an igloo or building effective paper aeroplanes can be completed in less than 15 minutes.

Save time by linking activities to curriculum topics. For example, build a pyramid for a pharaoh out of spaghetti and marshmallows. Alternatively, do an activity in maths that also covers science objectives.

If you feel unsure about teaching STEM, ask an expert to visit your school. Museums, zoos and universities are often keen to promote the topic to children for free.

Minibeast habitats

Here’s an example from Jane Dowden, education innovations manager at the British Science Association, of how a STEM activity might work, building on the minibeast habitats example we talked about earlier.

Start by introducing the science activity to pupils with a story which sets the scene. Next, talk about where the children might look for insects in your school grounds and what they might find.

Hand out magnifying glasses, clipboards, cameras (if available), minibeast identifiers and containers and explain how they should be used.

Next, think about how the children will record their results. This could be via photos, drawings or written notes. Ask pupils to record what they found and where.

Once back inside, ask pupils to present their results to the class. What did they find? Why do the insects like that particular habitat? Can we replicate it?

Gingerbread man escape

Here’s another idea to try, from primary teacher and author Emily Hunt.

Explain to the children that a gingerbread man has escaped the oven and needs to cross a river to get away. Can pupils help build him a bridge?

Activities do not need to involve expensive resources. The following ideas from Emily are all cheap options:

  • Make a marble run from cardboard tubes cut in half
  • Create an egg parachute from carrier bags
  • Make a boat from tin foil
  • Create bottle rockets from plastic bottles filled with vinegar and bicarbonate of soda
  • Secure lollysticks to plastic spoons to make catapults

Play-Doh elephants

Primary teacher Nicola Connor suggests the following playful way of teaching forces, thought up by Gaynor Weaver.

In pairs, ask children to one at a time create elephants from Play-Doh, but during each attempt, they must only use one force, such as twist, pull or push.

This helps pupils to see the effect a force has on an object, but also allows them to practise listening and talking.

Paper plane bullseye

The following two ideas are by Emily Hunt. The first involves creating a paper plane. Place two targets in the room, one five metres away and one ten metres away.

Ask pupils to test their plans on the nearest target, refining them as necessary. Next, fold a new plane and try to reach the further target. How do the two designs differ?

Explain that throwing the paper plan creates a force that propels it forward, just like the engine of a real plane. Drag works as a force in the opposite direction, so the thrust needs to be greater than the drag.

Gravity is also acting as a downward force. The plane’s wings will temporarily balance this because they experience lift as the air passes over them. This balance determines how far the plane will go.

Marshmallow towers

Give pupils mini marshmallows and toothpicks and ask them to build the tallest tower they can, focusing on a particular shape such as triangles, squares, rectangles or pentagons.

Use 3D shape words such as ‘cubes’, ‘cuboids’ and ‘prisms’. Triangles are inherently rigid so will probably make the most successful structure.

Investigate how triangles are used in famous architecture examples such as the Eiffel Tower.

More STEM activities to try

Women in STEM

From a young age, children develop perceptions about certain jobs. Introducing STEM jobs to pupils is a great way to dispel gender stereotypes and widen children’s career aspirations.

Studies have found that it is a lack of confidence, not ability, that can discourage young women from taking STEM subjects. As a result, the percentage of women in the UK STEM workforce is low, at only 15%.

The good news is that in 2019, more girls than boys collectively studied biology, physics and chemistry at A-level.

Educational writer John Bolton is calling on teachers to be role models and provide plenty of opportunities for girls to see women in STEM. He suggests talking about computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, mathematician Ada Lovelace and computer scientist Grace Hopper.

Other women in STEM that you can talk to pupils about include Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsars, businesswoman Martha Lane-Fox and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.

Amy Ryan, head of science at Harris City Academy Crystal Palace, set up a STEM club for female students at her school. The girls were tasked with STEM challenges such as creating a simple water distiller, a female-friendly backpack and washable sanitary products.

One participant said that she was “starting to learn and embrace lots of new skills I never thought I had in me.” Find out more about STEMgirls club here.

Best STEM education blogs

The STEM Outreach team at Newcastle University has a blog that aims to encourage young people to get involved with STEM. Many of the posts are written by current students. Read it here.

The Thinkfun blog features posts about project ideas, tips for making STEM learning enjoyable and more.

Visit the Vivify STEM blog for STEM activity ideas, distance learning activities and teaching tips.

STEM education quotes

  • “Creativity is the secret sauce to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It is a STEM virtue.” – Ainissa G. Ramirez, PhD, former engineering professor at Yale University
  • “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” – Bernard Baruch, American financier
  • “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” – Seymour Papert, South African mathematician and computer scientist

Even more STEM education ideas

If you want to improve your pupils’ STEM education, Google programme ‘CS First’ is a free computer science curriculum that anyone can teach. It’s designed for pupils aged 9-14 and will help children to collaborate on projects. Find out more here.

The Horizons in STEM higher education conference is an annual event that aims to help STEM teachers make connections, innovate and share pedagogy. Find out more here.

If you’re looking for publications on STEM education, the International Journal of STEM Education is a great place to start. Inside you’ll find lots of scholarly articles on STEM education, written by STEM graduates, researchers and professors, all of which have undergone peer review.

If you’re looking for STEM resources for your classroom, Knex Education STEM sets are designed to keep pupils engaged and feature hands-on, inquiry-based lesson plans. The Sillbird STEM 12 in 1 Education Solar Robot can be assembled into 12 different robots which can move on land or in water.

Download a free six-week series of STEM lessons here. Children will learn about six simple machines and how they transfer force from one place to another. The download contains a PDF medium term plan, worksheets, PowerPoints and teaching notes.

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