By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


“I feel like they’re more independent, they’re happier to take risks, they’re happier to design their own experiments, they’re happier to fail.”

This is Emma Smart, a science teacher at Bedford Girls’ School, speaking to us about the impacts completing a Bronze CREST Award last year had on her Year 8 class.

Bedford Girls’ School is an all-girls independent school in the east of England, where Sixth Form students  work on collaborative science projects as part of their International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

Inspired by these students’ experiences of this type of independent, student-led learning, Emma decided to give her younger students the same opportunity by running CREST Awards.

We spoke to Emma about how she ran CREST as part of the curriculum, the benefits of CREST for both students and teachers alike, and why more must be done to tackle the underrepresentation of girls and women in STEM.

What is CREST?

CREST is our flagship education programme which encourages young people aged 5-19 to think and behave like scientists and engineers through open-ended, investigative projects.

With women still significantly underrepresented in the STEM higher education and workforce landscape (and progress not necessarily linear, read our blog here on girls in ICT), fostering girls’ STEM aspirations from a young age is crucial. Running CREST Awards can be an effective part of this process.

It’s really good for them [students] in terms of ownership.

Emma’s students worked in groups of three and four and were given a broad theme of the ecology of the school site, which they could explore however they chose.

They decided what their research question would be, ordered the equipment they’d need and, with some teacher support, designed their experiments.

They can measure light levels or temperature or PH of soil and look at the different types of plants or size of leaf…we got plant indicators and chromatography and looked at the different types of fruit that attract insects the most.

The benefits of this independence were clear:

It’s really good for them in terms of ownership. Coming up with a research question I think is a new thing for them and all those investigative skills as well, they have to write their own risk assessments and all of those key important tasks.

Fitting CREST into lesson time

While CREST projects work well in after-school STEM clubs, allowing students with passions and aspirations to proactively pursue them, incorporating student-led, investigative projects into curriculum time ensures all students get the opportunity to embrace this style of learning.

Emma chose to use the Bronze CREST projects as a way for her students to bring to together all the skills they’d developed in Years 7 and 8, before they began studying for GCSEs in Year 9.

Our KS3 [key stage 3] curriculum is focused on skills rather than content, so it’s a really nice activity for them to bring those skills together and for them to do a presentation at the end…it’s bringing their KS3 science curriculum together at the end.

Students worked on their projects in several science lessons towards the end of term, then had half a day off-timetable to finalise their work and do their presentations.

It was a bit more fun, there was lots of crushing of flowers, mixing things, it was nice and colourful, they spent the whole day almost outside, taking their own measurements, they feel a bit more like they are real scientists.

What were the benefits?

This cohort are now in Year 9, and Emma has been able to watch their development.

I would say my Year 9s are more likely to take risks, they are happier when I say things like “here’s your equipment, this is what I want you to investigate”, [and] just going off and doing it.

Through designing and running their own experiments, they’re learning the importance of trial and improvement; getting everything right first time isn’t necessarily the best way to grow.

Hopefully having participated in this CREST Award will help them to realise you learn more, you gain more actually from getting things wrong or your mistakes than getting everything right all the time, and also that it can feel a little bit more stressful designing your own project than just being told what to do, but ultimately you learn a lot more from it and you remember a lot more about it.

A mixed-sex world

Emma previously worked in a mixed-sex school before moving to Bedford Girls School; she has seen how girl learn science in both environments:

Coming to an all-girls school, there isn’t that stereotype threat that there is in the co-ed. They are much more confident, if you do any practical work they’ll just get straight on and do it, there’s no sitting back and letting the boys take over.

While she noticed a difference in attitude towards student-led work in the group who had done a CREST Award, compared to students who hadn’t, they also didn’t need to overcome the obstacle of being girls in a classroom where the subject can have the stereotype of being ‘for boys’.

This is not an observation Emma has made in isolation. Research by the Institute of Physics shows that girls who attend a same-sex school are much more likely to study physics at A level.

However, single-sex education is not the answer to rectifying underrepresentation of women in higher education and the workforce - these environments will be mixed-sex. The onus is on those in positions of power and authority to make these environments welcoming, accessible and conducive to success for everyone.

Until this is the norm, equipping girls with a strong confidence in their STEM abilities is essential.

Here are some other blogs you might be interested in:

Education | How CREST can help schools achieve the four purposes of the new Curriculum for Wales

Education | Tackling the STEM gender gap

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