'You can’t be what you can’t see’: the importance of making STEM education relatable and relevant

Posted on: 14 Mar 2019
Posted by: James Polansky

As we celebrate British Science Week, James Polansky, head at Boundary Oak School in Hampshire discusses how schools can make STEM education more meaningful for pupils.

There’s a fantastic book that I ask all my students to read, called 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of our Times by Michael Brooks. It carries the message that it’s ok to admit that you’re stuck, because even the most famous scientists of our time have been baffled at some point.

In an increasingly technology-dominated world, there is a very real danger that we won’t be able to meet the growing demand for scientists, researchers, and engineers that the future is certain to present us with. A recent report, Jobs of the Future, revealed that we can expect 142,000 extra jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sectors in the UK between now and 2023.

Although the responsibility for narrowing the skills gap doesn’t rest solely with schools (universities, further education institutions and employers must also play their part), we are crucial to laying the foundation of knowledge and skills that will allow our children to succeed in adulthood. And it’s about far more than simply delivering lessons. When it comes to tackling the well documented STEM challenge in schools two things are important. One is making STEM interesting for young minds – and the other is making it relatable and relevant.

Past studies have shown that children start to find STEM subjects less relevant to their lives as they move from primary to secondary school. As the curriculum becomes more challenging for them, our challenge as educators is to keep their eyes open to the bigger picture: that science and technology enables the many privileges they take for granted. Whether it is basic utilities, healthcare, technology or leisure, we stand on the shoulders of scientists and engineers in almost every facet of our daily lives.

You can’t be what you can’t see

As educators we can impart this wisdom, but the message hits home that little bit harder when it’s delivered by someone on the front line. Not only that, but – as the children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman puts it so succinctly – ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. It’s easy to talk about doctors, scientists and engineers as a collective; as the rocket scientists in white coats making all the clever things happen. However, for young people to aspire to this, they need to be able to believe, relate and visualise themselves in those shoes. And that means giving them relatable role models - be they from similar backgrounds, schools, ethnicity, religion, gender or simply having faced similar challenges in their journey through life.

Take Helen Sharman, for example – who in 1991, became the first Briton in space at the age of just 27.

This year – the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing - we’re lucky enough to be welcoming her to Boundary Oak to speak to our pupils about her career, training and experiences as an astronaut and a scientist. Helen is an inspiration to male and female pupils alike, a passionate advocate of STEM education, and an author of two books, including a children’s book about space travel. If being an astronaut isn’t enough to spark our pupils’ interest, how about being a research chemist at Mars researching the flavour properties of their chocolate!

It isn’t only the ‘celebrity’ scientists and engineers that our young people need exposure to. Of equal importance is the celebrating everyday STEM heroes. I was lucky enough to witness the birth of my fourth child last Christmas, a required c-section. My first reaction on her appearance was to turn to the female registrar and ask her to come and give a talk to my pupils!

The real-life classroom

Though it isn’t a new idea, it’s hard to overstress that making STEM relatable means taking it beyond the classroom. For example, one of our recent science investigation trips was to measure and investigate the physics of a rollercoaster at nearby Paulton’s Park. And last year, one of our car-mad year 9 pupils was lucky enough to spend a work experience day at Elemental Cars, a company that makes performance track cars that are road legal - disassembling and re-assembling a V8 sports car, and being driven in the finished car up the school drive!

Our pupils also have the chance to attend the Solent Festival of Engineering, which is all about challenging stereotypes and showcasing the variety, creativity and opportunity of engineering careers. And during British Science Week, Southampton University Spaceflight volunteers will be visiting us to run workshops on rocket launching and a journey to Mars.

At Boundary Oak we not only have an extensive programme of careers advice, work experience and external speakers, we also ask our parents to share their experiences and advice through assemblies, class talks and “hot-desking” events in order to maximise our pupils’ exposure to breadth and depth of possible career paths and the multitude of opportunities that exist in our world. Meanwhile, for our youngest pupils, a simple yet engaging STEM activity can be to introduce them to some of the more exciting hands-on experiences they can expect at secondary level. That’s why during British Science week, our senior school students will be giving science demonstrations to prep and pre-prep.

We know all too well that many young people lose interest in STEM subjects when they start to struggle with them in school. Ultimately, we need to keep reminding them that the struggle is worthwhile.

Or, as Michael Brooks writes – “in science, being stuck can be a sign that you’re about to make a great leap forward.”

About James Polansky

James Polansky is head at Boundary Oak School in Hampshire.