The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Enhancing professionalism in education since 1965

20 Jun 2017

Sparking curiosity with STEM competitions

Dr Zoe Moncrieff, Chemistry teacher at Inveralmond Community High School

What does the future look like for our world and the way we live? It’s questions like this that need to be answered to make our planet a safe, clean and vibrant place to live for generations to come.

These solutions will come from the ingenuity of scientists and engineers, but the UK faces a huge shortfall of people going into these careers, with a shortage of up to 60,000 people a year. To inspire young people to pursue technical careers we need collaboration across industry and schools working together to build a workforce of experts in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

It is collaboration with organisations beyond the straight academic environment that enable young people to connect the dots and to see that the skills they are learning in the classroom have a direct relevance to the world around them and to creating a better future for all of us.

Every day that I step into my science class, I feel a great responsibility to equip my pupils with the skillset to not only find rewarding and fulfilling careers but also play a role in making a real difference for the future of our world.

While it is crucial to engage pupils with STEM subjects, so is making students aware that STEM learning can lead to a variety of pathways, and isn’t confined to the science lab. This is the case especially for pupils who struggle to relate what they learn in the classroom to the real world and their personal lives.

Pupils from the team that won The Bright Ideas Challenge

STEM Competitions

To bridge the gap, we’ve run numerous STEM competitions and events for our pupils over the year, including The Bright Ideas Challenge by Shell, the West Lothian Pump It Up Challenge and Sci-Fun Roadshow, alongside other corporate challenges. These opportunities have enabled our pupils to get involved in interactive, hands-on activities, and we’ve seen first-hand the way that this can boost their levels of engagement, change attitudes and get their inspiration fired up.

For any time-stretched teacher the thought of taking part in non-compulsory additional challenges can seem daunting.  However, most of the resources provided through these programmes are curriculum-linked.  Some are even co-created and reviewed by peers, which makes it easy to ‘plug and play’ or flex to suit your timetable and student needs.

Making the leap from a traditional science lesson to a project-style STEM challenge empowers students and gives them a taste of the world of work. They need to show independence, time management, communication skills, team work and accountability.

While our STEM club is a fantastic opportunity for STEM-loving students to nurture their interests, incorporating these competitions and projects into class time gives otherwise unengaged students the chance to broaden their horizons and see STEM in a different light, especially if they can tie in their personal interests and transferable skills. It’s always great when you see a student who has never demonstrated a specific interest in STEM subjects before, lose themselves in a challenge.

From a teacher’s perspective, The Bright Ideas Challenge has been particularly effective in inspiring pupils and harnessing their enthusiasm through the team-building and creative nature of the competition. Working collaboratively to problem solve and find an innovative energy solution for cities of the future, our pupils were stretched beyond the classroom syllabus, which in turn enhanced skills like critical and creative thinking and taking initiative.

They also said that they found the challenge fun and rewarding because it involved undertaking research to explore subject areas they may not otherwise have explored.  Perhaps more than anything though, relevance is key.  It wasn’t hard to engage students with imagining solutions that would improve the quality of life in the very cities they are likely to all live in.

Just taking part has ignited my students’ curiosity and created a real buzz. But winning £1,500 to support our STEM offering, tablet computers for the winning student team and a trip to Shell’s festival of ideas and innovation, Make the Future Live, was another huge boost to morale and to the continued development of our school’s STEM programmes.

In turn, being able to admire their completed entry to a STEM competition gives pupils extra confidence in their academic abilities and sparks their curiosity in pursuing STEM subjects and in understanding the diverse career paths STEM can offer; it also inspires them to study these areas further and discover how their actions and achievements could have a real impact on our planet’s future.

Given the confidence boost and tangible skill development these opportunities offer our pupils, it came as no surprise to us at Inveralmond that the enjoyment and refreshed relevance of STEM translates into strengthened pupil performance and a real buzz throughout the school.