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:
1. My approach to teaching is rooted in my aim of developing the science capital of the children I teach: their knowledge about science, their attitudes towards science, knowing people who are interested in science, and their everyday engagement with science.
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.
2. Remember that everyone is an expert in some things, and a novice in others.
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:
1. SCAFFOLDING: think about where they are now, and where they need to get to. Break the journey down into little steps, and think about how to support them to reach the next one, then the one after, and so on until they get to where they need to be. Scaffolding might take the form of a series of questions, each bringing the child closer to understanding the scientific concept — but crucially they are going through the thinking process and making links between their existing knowledge and the new knowledge. Scaffolding might also involve models, analogies, explanations or showing them an example. For instance: there’s no point explaining to someone how sound travels if they don’t already know that air is made up of tiny gas particles, but to help them understand the concept of particles you might need to use a scaffold made up of models and analogies. [I am aware that “scaffold” is an analogy itself and this is perhaps all getting a bit ‘meta’]
2. MODELS and ANALOGIES: these can be a powerful form of scaffolding. When explaining anything abstract / huge / tiny / a process (basically anything you can’t ‘see’), it is helpful to use models and analogies that relate this new learning to something they are already familiar with. E.g. the size of the Earth compared with the Moon and distance between them is roughly equivalent to an apple and a cherry tomato two metres apart. Just remember to be explicit about how the analogy / model is relevant, and recognise where it breaks down.
3. BE EXPLICIT: about what you expect children to do. Praise the behaviour you want to see: “well done for sharing your equipment with…”. Praise the attitudes you want children to develop: “well done for not giving up when it was difficult — you persevered, brilliant!”. And be clear about the output you expect: “now annotate your drawing to explain why you set up your equipment in this way, so anyone looking at it will understand your thinking”. Most of the time children will do what they are asked — so make sure you are clear about what you want them to do!
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.
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