The Young Engineers Academy: A Head Teacher’s perspective on STEM in Action™ in the classroom

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In March 2015, our school (Parkfield Community School), which is located in one of the most deprived wards in both Birmingham and England, was honoured (and more than a little shocked) to win the National Pupil Premium Award for 2015. This award was presented to our school due to the attainment of our pupil premium (disadvantaged) children and the innovative approaches we adopted – using our pupil premium funding – to help all of our children to fully achieve their potential.

With this prestigious award also came a substantial amount of extra funding. This money could have easily been allocated to lots of small scale projects/resources, but we wanted to do something really special with it that would create a long-lasting, inspiring legacy for each and every child at our school both now and for those that will join us in the future.  As an outward-facing, innovative school, and after much discussion within the leadership team, we came up with the idea of creating Parkfield’s Young Engineers’ Academy (YEA) where children could specifically work on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) projects in a vibrant, dedicated space and have a wealth of resources which do this. This we believed would be quite unique for a primary school, and would inspire our children, our staff and the wider community, as well as providing the children with some of the skills that led to Birmingham’s proud history of innovation and manufacturing and which are still very much in demand today with key employers, such as BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover in our city.

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Each half term, our children visit our YEA for a full day. Here the children tackle a bespoke scenario, that provides the children with an opportunity to explore the links between and develop skills within the STEM subjects (in particular engineering, which is unfortunately given a low priority within many primary schools), in practical, real-life and fun contexts. Our key aim with the YEA is to inspire and excite our children and to infuse them with a sense of awe and wonder about education generally, but specifically within the STEM subjects, so that hopefully more of them will have the passion and drive to continue pursuing these subjects further beyond their time at Parkfield.

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The YEA provides experiences which the children would probably not get at home. It also develops those skills which will be crucial for both their education and for the workplaces of the future, such as: creativity, ingenuity, risk-taking, resilience and teamwork.

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In the past, we have found that many of our children have demonstrated low aspirations when they start thinking about their options for the future. Unfortunately, this often occurs due to cultural factors present in our community context, particularly amongst our girls. In addition, national evidence shows that many girls become disinterested with the STEM subjects at secondary school. This is something that we proactively try to address. One way that we do this is through the use of our Young Engineers Academy, by trying to capture the children’s interest in these areas from an early age. We also promote positive role models for all of our children to aspire towards, using pioneers from the present and from throughout history.

As somebody with a real passion in these areas, I found myself designing the curriculum for the YEA. Although I had quite a few ideas, I quickly found myself turning to every teachers’ best friend – the internet – for inspiration. To my surprise, although there are lots of websites out there with possible ideas for lessons, I struggled to find a commercial company that produced quality resources with suitable lesson ideas that we could use. That was when I stumbled upon Primary STEM in Action.

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After browsing their selection of resources, the Earthquake Technologies Challenge Project immediately caught my attention (having always been fascinated by earthquakes myself) and I ordered a set to take a closer look at, which promptly arrived in school a few days later. The first thing that caught my attention were the wealth of teacher’s lesson plans that were provided within the teacher’s guide and children’s resource sheets. Although I’ve never been somebody who follows commercial lesson plans to the letter, these provided me with the inspiration I had searched for and with a few tweaks to the lesson plans/resources here and there, I could immediately see the potential of how this pack could be used with primary aged children to tackle various aspects of the STEM subjects, in an engaging way, within the context of looking at structures and earthquakes. I quickly found myself ordering multiple sets of this to use with a full class.

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For our children, they found using the K’Nex type materials to initially construct any structures quite challenging. This was because this was a completely new and alien construction material to our children. However, after some initial experimentation (which after all is what STEM is really about) the children’s confidence quickly began to grow and they began assembling all sorts of constructions, which were tested using the ‘dreaded’ Wobbletop Shake Table.

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During the full day that each class used these materials for, the children learnt about: the science of earthquakes; problems encountered by engineers (including monetary constraints – through being limited on the resources the children could afford to use); number computational skills; the construction of 3D shapes; problem solving; working as a team and much, much more. These were all skills were identified by the children when we evaluated the day. For me though, the richness of the discussion that could be heard as the children used these resources, the thought processes that were travelled (particularly when constructions were not as successful as hoped) and the engagement of the children throughout were fantastic.

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After the success of this project, we also purchased the STEM in Action Wild Feet Exploration Project, which we felt linked perfectly with a Year 2 topic concerning animals. This again, with the occasional tweak to personalise this to our school/topic, was equally as successful and popular with our children.

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The need for our YEA and for all schools to generally provide a higher priority to the STEM subjects is very clear. Although nearly all of the valuable skills developed by children through engaging in STEM sessions and through studying the STEM subjects are transferable (and are the kind of skills all employers are searching for), engineering is still key to the UK economy, especially in the post Brexit era we are about to enter. For example, “in 2014, the engineering sector contributed an estimated £455.6 billion (27.1% of the UK’s GDP). It is estimated that engineering employers have the potential to generate an additional £27 billion per year from 2022, if we meet the forecasted demand for 257,000 new vacancies in engineering enterprises in
the same timescale.”

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“Failing to meet our engineering workforce requirements will not only damage the UK economically, but it will also have a detrimental effect on individual employees’ prosperity and the economic sustainability of engineering employers. What’s more, failure will impact on engineering’s role in providing a lasting legacy for future generations through ensuring the supply of food, clean water and energy – a tough challenge against a backdrop of climate change and ageing
populations. The single biggest threat to success lies with education: to meet demand, we need enough young people to study STEM subjects at schools and colleges.”

Engineering UK 2015 – The state of engineering

 

Through our current and future planned work with our YEA and through other school’s giving the STEM subjects a higher profile (particularly in primary schools), hopefully we can inspire and equip our children with the vital skills they will need to succeed in the future, thus ensuring that our future workforce and country continues to lead the world in creativity and innovation.

#LoveLearning

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Discover STEM in Action™ at BETT – it’s free to attend! Find us on stand B78, Hall N3.

www.steminaction.co.uk