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How to encourage a love of STEM from an early age

Former Head of Science Nick Welford explores ways in which to encourage scientific investigation from an early age and explains why Bryanston pupils are given opportunities to solve problems through research and experimentation… from Nobel Prize winner Fred Sanger, and beyond!

Experimentation is part of human nature; our biological evolution has progressed hand in hand with technological revolution. Feats of engineering have only become possible as our understanding of materials and our ability to manipulate them have improved. Extending scientific knowledge requires theoretical grounding in a subject, a hypothesis and the ability to test it in a valid manner. Our inherent inquisitive nature and ability to communicate has resulted in the collective knowledge that we currently enjoy.

My father spent many years as a Research and Development Officer for the RNLI, and as such he was asked to undertake various investigations, from boat design to protective clothing to self-righting apparatus. When tasked with assessing commercial night vision goggles, he designed a test that involved a venue that allowed a decent line of sight (Worbarrow Bay), a willing volunteer (me as a ten-year-old) and a selection of night vision goggles. In the dead of night (without a moon), I was given a radio and instructed to walk alone around the bay, then he would try and find me with various image intensifiers. Although I was too young to realise it, I had been exposed to scientific method; he had an independent variable (brand of goggles), a dependent variable (how well he could see me) and control variables (constantly low ambient light and my distance from him). With childhood experiences such as these, it was only natural for me to follow sciences at A level and university.

So how should we foster an interest in science and encourage STEM activities in young people today? The answer lies with posing problems and giving opportunities to solve them through research and experimentation. Often the key to engaging pupils is to NOT give them the answer! Another factor is to present a problem that is commensurate with the level of understanding. For those who like crosswords, the level of difficulty is all important; too easy and a clue is not engaging; too hard and one gives up. The trick as a science teacher is to find that ‘Goldilocks’ zone when presenting a practical problem.

In both GCSE and A level science lessons, Bryanston pupils are regularly offered the opportunity to undertake practical work to solve a question. A large proportion of an IB science subject is assessed on a pupil’s ability to formulate a research question and devise experiments to test it. Pupils can also engage in extra-curricular opportunities; our Head of Physics recently challenged a group of girls to improve farming methods in Zambia. The team were subsequently awarded second place in the International Soroptimist STEM Challenge. KS5 pupils can undertake the CREST challenge, giving them the chance to research scientific topics and present their findings to their peers. For the first time this year, A3 pupils from Bryanston go up against Eton pupils in an essay competition, written on their own choice of engineering topic.

Such activities have always been offered to Bryanston pupils; in the 1930s Fred Sanger finished his school certificate early, which allowed him a year of experimenting with his chemistry master, Geoffrey Ordish. Sanger went on to win two Nobel Prizes; his second was for a creative stroke of genius where he combined some relatively straightforward biochemical steps to provide a method for ‘reading’ DNA. As I write this, the Novel Coronavirus is steadily making its way across the planet. Identifying the DNA sequence of this virus (discoverable using a method based on Sanger’s work) may well prove instrumental in resolving the epidemic.

There will always be many unanswered science questions and many curious young people; tapping into that curiosity is the key for any society. Harvesting energy from fusion, advancing cancer treatment or creating methods for adapting and mitigating climate change. The question is… where should we start?