STEM: a word so familiar now, that it is hard to believe that two years ago it had very little meaning to me. It all seemed to change in an instant when I attended an inspirational North Tyneside Learning Trust STEM conference in November 2011.
The underlying message was clear; we need to act immediately to create a generation of children that have the skills and qualifications necessary for a STEM career. The conference certainly had a significant impact on me and the senior management team at my school, but I didn’t realise the changes that would occur as a consequence.
I now feel like STEM is part of nearly every other conversation I have, and the importance of ensuring that children are inspired by and passionate about science, technology, engineering and maths, at a very young age, is evident. It is clear we all need to play a role and it was this that led me to think about how we could start this process at a very young age; before stereotypes had been created and minds made up.
Of course, the curriculum was an obvious starting point and as a school we have made vast changes, but that is another story. What I really want to talk about is how we created a true enthusiasm and passion for STEM through an extra-curricular club.
At the start of the year I had very little knowledge of what would be the best way to run a STEM club. I knew my main aim was to create a love of the STEM subjects and I therefore set out to think of fun and engaging activities that would excite and inspire the children.
The vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and coke fountain did the trick initially and the children thoroughly enjoyed learning about space and creating their own solar system. However, I was finding it more and more difficult to find the time to plan and resource sessions which had a real purpose, combined the STEM subjects and not only inspired but also helped the children to learn the fundamentals of science and engineering.
Providing a purpose
I had heard of the CREST Awards  at a science conference and was intrigued by the range of activities available and the opportunities for the children to gain certificates and badges to celebrate their achievements. I was so impressed that by the end of the Autumn term we had purchased the CREST SuperStar and MegaStar programmes and not only that, we had achieved our first sticker on our quest for SuperStar status!
Right from the outset the children enjoyed the activities. They enjoyed the background stories, the real life link and above all the independence to investigate in their own way. I was particularly impressed by the purpose each activity provided, the links to all of the STEM subjects and very importantly that the activities could be completed by children at their own level.
The CREST Star awards have certainly provided a purpose for the club and given the children a fantastic incentive to work at their highest level.
One of the children’s favourite activities was bridge blunder, where they were challenged to create the strongest bridge. This was our very first activity and the children were excited right from the offset. They started by looking at the structure of bridges and what gave them their strength. The children looked at different shapes and thought carefully about load. It didn’t take long before the children were talking about spreading the weights out equally as the bridge would sag and break if all the weight was added to one place. The challenge was made even more difficult by the children being restricted by the amount of cello tape they could use and the number of sheets of paper.
After looking carefully at bridge designs, the children started exploring shapes they could make out of paper and how strong they were. Some groups opted for creating a zig zag effect and layering paper on top to add strength, others folded the paper. In the end, it was the bridge from two year six children that worked the best. They had tightly rolled the paper as the base of their bridge and thus created a ridge to hold the weights in place around the edges. The bridge was so successful that we actually ran out of weights!
The children learned a lot about shapes which provide strength and also balance through this activity. It was so popular that it was chosen as an activity to be run by the STEM club at our STEM fair, in which children from all year groups, parents, families and staff were able to try building a bridge for themselves. The activity allowed the children to use all of the STEM subjects to help tackle the problem.
Another activity which really stands out was Martin the Magician’s money misery, an activity which uses coins as an example of metals that aren’t magnetic. The children enjoyed trying the magic trick for themselves (an activity I know they replicated at home) and even more so, enjoyed testing different coins and materials around the class. The children were amazed that not all metals were magnetic and were even more amazed that not all coins were magnetic.
The children’s learning developed further by researching on the internet why some two pence pieces were magnetic and others weren’t. They wrote fantastic letters explaining to the magician that some of the coins were made from a non-metallic metal which is why they didn’t work in the trick.
The CREST Star activities have certainly given the club a real purpose, has shown how all of the STEM subjects are linked and has given the children the opportunity to practice their investigative, research and design skills. Currently we have twenty children in the STEM club and it has really inspired them to continue to work at a very high level for their age. The children attend regularly and the club has grown in popularity, with more and more children asking to join.
Since starting the CREST Star awards, the children have completed many activities and have only four left to go before achieving SuperStar status. We hope to complete this by the end of the year and the year six children are striving to become MegaStars before school ends in July. Such dedication and commitment by the children clearly illustrates the impact the CREST Awards have had.
Without a doubt we will continue to complete the CREST star activities next year. The children in Years 4 and 5 are already looking forward to working towards the CREST MegaStar award, taking a greater role in the STEM fair and possibly achieving ambassador status!
Next year I am looking forward to seeing the children currently in the club grow from strength to strength and to inspire and observe another, even larger, group of children developing a love and passion for STEM.