Why it’s never too early to put STEAM on the curriculum

Posted on: 03 Dec 2018
Posted by: Dr Katie King

Dr Katie King, science subject leader at Headington Prep School, outlines the importance of studying STEAM at a young age - particularly for girls.

What’s the point in focusing on STEAM when children are still mastering the basics of learning to read and write? Is there really any advantage to spending time, energy and resources on concepts likely to be alien to Prep or primary-aged children? In short, the answer is yes, particularly when we’re talking about girls’ education.

Stereotyping is perhaps at its strongest at this age group. Girls are surrounded by pink princesses and expected to enjoy caring and nurturing play while boys are encouraged to get stuck into construction toys and physical play. Many will already confidently say what they want to be when they grow up. Fast forward a few years and while the girls may be out of their pink princess dresses, the proportion of girls studying Physics to A Level is a fraction of that of boys. Minuscule proportions of engineers are female and women are under-represented at the highest levels in challenging STEAM-related careers. Does this mean that fewer women have the skills and inclination? Highly unlikely – far more likely that they perhaps never even considered this as a possible career path. Thus opening their eyes to the world of STEAM at the earliest possible opportunity becomes that much more appealing.

At Headington Prep School we have just finished our Year of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths. It has been thrilling, exciting, challenging and genuinely inspiring. It was a celebration of all that the subjects offer, from problem-solving and teamwork, to the traits of perseverance and resilience. Whether these girls eventually follow careers in these fields or pursue other options, these will be invaluable skills both now and in the future.

If you work with role models who are passionate about their field of learning then you can share their enthusiasm and excitement – and an intangible career concept becomes a real opportunity worth considering. In Oxford we are lucky enough to benefit from countless professionals working either in the city’s two universities, the world-leading research hospital the John Radcliffe or the nearby Science Park. When we bring in people like Oxford University professor of molecular genetics and metabolism Prof Anna Gloyn to show children as young as 7 or 8 how to extract DNA from strawberries, or challenge 11 year olds to break codes with teams from Bletchley Park, or invite researchers from the Oxford Vaccine Group to unpack the spread of disease and the purpose of vaccines with Key Stage 2 children, it feels real. It’s no longer a distant and incomprehensible thing that ‘somebody else does’ but something they have actually experienced in action. It also shows them that women work in these critical industries – so too could they. It’s a cliché but if you don’t plant the seeds of ideas then they will never germinate into fully-fledged realities.

Children of this age are less likely to have already decided they ‘can’t’ do something. They have less experience of failure and disappointment, of being told it’s not for them. It is as they grow older and they suffer setbacks or get things wrong that it becomes harder to take risks in their learning. They become less likely to take on something new and exciting if it comes, psychologically, with a risk of failure.

If we start at this age and take advantage of these enquiring minds, the thirst for knowledge and new things which is such a wonderful trait in so many young children, then they will grow up armed with everything they need to make an educated decision on what they truly want to be – and what they CAN be.

About Dr Katie King

Dr Katie King is a science subject leader at Headington Prep School.