What advice would you give STEM ambassadors before they go into schools?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) ambassadors are volunteers who work in STEM fields and have signed up to visit schools — their aim is to inspire more young people to achieve highly in and consider careers in STEM. I was asked to suggest 5 tips for those new to working with children…

I tend to be wary of top tips. “What works” depends so much on the age and prior experiences of the children, as well as what your aims are (to teach facts, big concepts, behaviours, relationships, skills, processes, attitudes…) . However I certainly think that there are some underlying principles, and some pedagogical (teaching) tools, that can aid someone with no teaching experience. I am assuming here that the aim is to explain scientific concepts in a way that will enable the children to understand them — but also to help children understand what scientists do and how they do it.

Two guiding principles:

I encourage the children to place themselves in the role of a scientist, and keep asking “how could a scientist answer this question?”. This allows for exploration of the many different types of scientists, and of the different ways in which they “do” science. It also emphasises that what scientists have in common is a desire to understand the natural world and the Universe better — that they ask questions, come up with ideas and try to test them in various ways to find out the answers. Based on the feedback from children in my lab, wearing lab coats and using scientific equipment can help them feel like scientists. But I would caution against an over-reliance on lab coats — it’s not representative and there is a real risk of reinforcing the stereotype that it is a uniform worn by all scientists. Perhaps more importantly, the one thing that my pupils say makes the biggest difference is when they feel that they are doing “real” science, i.e. they are working out the answer to a question that no-one knows the answer to. We’ve done this a couple of times now, working with the support of practicing scientific researchers, and the impact on children’s attitudes has been remarkable: last year over a third of our Y6 children said they wanted to be scientists, more than twice the national average. A part of that has been their realisation that being a scientist involves so much more than “doing experiments” in a lab all day — that scientists work in teams, that they are creative, they communicate with a range of audiences, that they can help people, and that they can have interests beyond science.

Reflection written by a child from another school, who attended one of my workshops about the nature of science — it doesn’t take much to change minds!

Be humble about what you can learn from others, however little they may be — and also be aware that most people won’t know as much about ‘your’ bit of science as you do, and so there are many things that they will need to be taught. This can require some patience!

Three pedagogical (teaching) tools:

These five suggestions are of course only a starting point. I haven’t even touched on the rather crucial subject of how to check that they understand what you’re talking about, or how to make effective use of demonstrations or practical work. But if there’s one thing I have learnt from years of training teachers, it is to practice what I preach —don’t try to do too much in one go, start with the fundamentals, and gradually build up knowledge and expertise through careful scaffolding until they are ready to be challenged and develop further.

Resources

A website that I use a lot to help children get their heads around the size of the different things we study in science: http://htwins.net/scale2/

Further explanation of scaffolding with examples: http://edglossary.org/scaffolding/

A list of science analogies that someone has compiled: http://www.metamia.com/analogize.php%3Fq%3Dq

If you want an idea of what the children might know before you meet them, ask their teacher, or take a look at the National Curriculum — here’s the English one: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study

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