Sunday, 13 December 2015

Thoughts about STEM

In the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about STEM and its impact. This has come around from a few things such as a meeting with the Royal Society of Edinburgh and GTCS’s Martin Osler (@MartinOsler) presenting the Partnership of the Year Award Sponsored by GTCS, which won this year by Dalziel High School and Amec Foster Wheeler for a five year project encouraging pupils into STEM subject. There has also been some coverage in press and I think I am missing teaching science (I am the only one who gets excited when I open the Chemistry of Christmas, today it was acetic acid (C2H4O), cool stuff).  So I had a look at the Education Source - EBSCO and pulled off three articles which all discuss different aspects of STEM subjects.

Let’s start with the bad press. In the last while there have been some disturbing notions about STEM subjects and some opinions are most unhelpful. For example, the twitter frenzy #distractinglysexy that was created after Jeremy Hunts comments about female scientists, see below;
Tim Hunt, an English biochemist who admitted that he has a reputation for being a “chauvinist”, said to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
Source: The Guardian (June 10th 2015)
Unfortunately you don’t have to look far to find similar misguided campaign’s, for example, IBM’s ‘Hack a Hairdryer’ campaign, which has recently come in for criticism both in the media and on twitter and due to the negative media attention, IBM have pulled this campaign.  The aim of the campaign was sound, in that it was to "reengineer misperceptions about women in tech, and to focus on what really matters in science”, however the way this was then marketed was not as ‘sound’.
I would love to have been in that meeting,
“OK chaps, we have to engage more females in engineering, any ideas?”
“Well, what can we use that all women relate to?”
“I’ve got it! They all love playing with their hair so what about hairdryers?”
What a great opportunity missed.
Criticism in the press;
IBM's "hack a hairdryer" campaign suddenly attracted a barrage of criticism by Twitter users who called it patronising and sexist”
(BBC website 7th December 2015)
And on twitter;

There are also concerns that the implementation of CfE has narrowed the curriculum and had led to a fall in the uptake of STEM subject by 4% in 2015, reported in Holyrood, here.

There are good news stories as well, this week we see an astronaut from Britain launching to the International Space Station where he will spend six months carrying out experiments and research. This weekend sees the end of the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (#COP21) with a ‘historic’ climate change agreement being agreed to by around 200 countries. Aberdeen Council lead the way to support primary teachers move from feeling ‘trepidation’ to ‘science champions’ by investing in staff capabilities, reported in Holyrood, hereThere is also lots of good resources and support through STEMNET and the learned Societies such as the Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Biology.

Even with all of these supports and resources we are still not meeting the demand from industry for students with a focus on STEM subjects. STEM subjects are still seen as the way forward to keep the global workforce sustainable and economically viable in an ever changing and digitising world. In a recent Telegraph article (8-12-15), here, they discussed how mothers who were not fond of STEM subjects, for whatever reason, are also passing on this “preconceptions about science to their own daughters”. From my experience of parents evening, I can say I have witnessed this so many times. Parents coming into the science lab and starting the conversation with “I was never any good at science so I don’t think she/he will be either”, I always love that conversation! In the article by Wenger et all (2014, p37), they cite Toglia (2013) who discuss the “socio-economic status, their parents expectations, jobs and educational level and the influence of respective advice centres” as all factors which influence girls in continuing with STEM subjects. So the perception of themselves as learners and social influences could have a more direct effect on girls choosing or not choosing STEM subjects.
The way children learn through play also impacts on their learning through out there lives. Girls tend to keep their play within the confines of ‘game’ whereas boys tend to go outwith. I saw this with my own children when they played with Lego, my boy would build something then break it apart and make random things, which all had a purpose - usually destruction! Whereas my daughter always built what was on the box and was satisfied when it was finished. This leads me to wonder then if there is something in the way learning is constructed into already existing schema (Piaget, 1975) that supports different thinkers, whether boys or girls, as Wenger et al (2014, p39) states “STEM subjects demand high levels of abstract thinking from students because of the models and formulas the respective information is condensed in”. Wenger et al (2014) goes on to discuss the need for more ‘independent learning opportunities’ so girls can build mental models, self-esteem and view of themselves as being ‘good’ at STEM subjects.

Another aspect that influences whether students’ progress into STEM subjects is the ‘edutainment’. In science subjects in early years, through primary and into the first stages of secondary there has been a focus on making science ‘fun’ to engage students. While I do like this aspect, it can only best serve the STEM subjects if this is underpinned by scientific rigour and followed up with a discussion around ‘what do our results tell us?’ rather than ‘just for fun’. As Pittinsky & Diamante (2015, p 47) state “At first glance, it looks like the problem begins when the fun stops”.
Teachers also have a huge role to play. In a cluttered education system with various pathway options and subjects jostling for attention, it can be hard for students to make decisions about the best subjects to take. Teachers need to be ‘gender free’ with advice and it is worrying to read in a Telegraph article, cited above, “Too often, I hear stories of teachers and career advisers telling girls that science is not for them”. So maybe we have to re-culture teacher’s knowledge and expectations for all students. Within the STEM subjects we need to start working more collaboratively, instead of the subject silo’s, and in co-operation with each other to promote a STEM mindset as Morrison and Bartlett (2009) cited by Pittinsky & Diamante (2015) state we will have moved to a time when “the STEM subjects are to be seen as a collective curriculum, where their content can become integrated or fused as one subject”.
Studying STEM subjects for all students can stir curiosity and enhance creativity, innovation and support positive learning experiences. Coupled with non-gender specific advice and continuing to increase the awareness of the pathways and careers offered by studying STEM subject – not that I am biased!

Pittinsky, T.L.&  Diamante, N (2015) Going beyond fun in STEM: Kappan p47- 51
Retrieved 15-12-07 p
Roberts, A. (2013) STEM is here, Now what? Technology and engineering teacher p22- 27
Wegner, C. Strehlke, F. Weber, F. (2014) Investigating the differences between girls and boys regarding the factors of frustration, boredom an insecurity they experience during science lessons:
Themes in Science and Technology Education, 7(1), pp 35-45

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