How encouraging an interest in STEM subjects can foster curiosity

Student perceptions about subjects and their related careers are developed during the early years of schooling. Research also shows that children have developed gender-based assumptions about jobs by the age of seven years*. By encouraging an interest in STEM subjects from an early age we can foster children’s curiosity and imagination whilst challenging many of the stereotypes we still face today.

 Schools can overcome these challenges by providing inclusive classrooms and workplaces that value female opinion, developing an engaging and relatable STEM curriculum and providing access to role models. In practice this means identifying female contributions to STEM subjects throughout the teaching of that subject (not just as a ‘one off’ event), arranging for ‘real life’ female STEM practitioners to be involved with the curriculum and encouraging female teachers to act as STEM mentors. 

 In the case of girls, studies have shown that girls’ interest in STEM wanes between the ages of 12 and 15**. Reasons for this include peer pressure, lack of female mentors and role models and also girls’ lack of confidence in their abilities. Further, experts have identified the need to challenge societal expectations and provide the young with more robust careers advice.

Exploring real world problems

Developing projects that allow young children to creatively explore real world problems helps to ensure engagement and allows girls to see the relevance of STEM careers. Girls in particular are less likely to pursue STEM careers if they feel they ‘aren’t clever enough’.  Allowing children to work on projects that develop their resilience and realisation that failure is part of the iterative design process, is key to ensuring that girls also feel confident about their ability to pursue STEM.

The Royal Academy of Engineering identifies studying STEM as embedding curiosity, open mindedness, ethical considerations, reliance, reflection, collaboration and resourcefulness.  Studying STEM allows children to make sense of information, apply knowledge and skills to solve problems, and gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions. STEM education integrates these concepts and emphasises the application of knowledge to real-life situations. Practising and developing these habits and skills allows children to be successful in all areas of the curriculum. 

Real-world problems are often complex and by nature are inherently multidisciplinary.  Embedding STEM in the curriculum allows us to include departments such as Physical Education and Art. Staff and children learn how STEM is incorporated into their daily lives and children are provided with access to exciting and rewarding career options. By learning how their contributions can lead to innovative and creative solutions, children will naturally build confidence and explore their ideas further.

Making STEM connections across a range of subjects

STEM covers a broad range of school subjects so it is important that the facilities cater for an interdisciplinary approach. This means access to computing facilities alongside laboratories, 3D printers and design areas. STEM projects often run over a longer period of time so a dedicated area where children can come and ‘tinker’ with them is key. Traditionally school buildings have physically separated departments that are actually key to STEM. Having dedicated STEM facilities that allow these subjects to come together allows children to see the interconnectivity of these in the ‘real world’.

The development of computer science technology (such as Raspberry Pi devices) and the incorporation of coding into STEM projects is hugely beneficial for young people as it allows them to explore skills that will be beneficial in future workplaces. This, in conjunction with more accessible sensor and data logging equipment expands the range of projects children can carry out.  

Developments in equipment over recent years also mean that children can now carry out projects such as building and coding robots to sense movement and colour, sending small satellites into space and take part in projects that develop solutions to problems, such as adding memory in Alzheimer’s patients. 

Looking to the future

In a fast-changing world, an understanding of and opportunity to engage in these sorts of STEM activities enables active citizenship in our increasingly technological society and prepares the young for future developments in the field.

As we look to what the future of STEM might hold for schools, the development of interactive 3D virtual reality to explore everything from the structure of molecules to the environment on Mars is a hugely exciting prospect. This in conjunction with online laboratories and projects that allow children to collaborate with other schools, universities and industry partners across the world will provide children with exciting opportunities to develop their skills. This is particularly relevant in light of the recent pandemic and the potential impact on face-to-face projects in the future.