From theory to practice

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Educators face an urgent, uphill battle to engage and enthuse students with the real-world applications of STEM subjects

Promoting interest in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is top of the agenda for many national education systems and industry experts.

With demand for technical experts on the rise – the US National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) estimates that jobs in computing and related fields in the USA will increase by 45 per cent between 2008 and 2018 – it’s clear that students who want to get ahead should be studying these subjects into secondary school and beyond. But students’ interest in STEM is worryingly low.

The NMSI reports that just 36 per cent of 2013 US high-school graduates were capable of studying science at college level. In 2010, just 51 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds in Australia were studying science – down from 94 per cent 20 years earlier.

One look at the dull textbooks and complex equations that regularly accompany STEM subjects and it’s easy to sympathize with students’ lack of enthusiasm. So what can be done to make scientific subjects more enjoyable and engaging for students, without watering down the important principals behind the topics?

We’ve spoken to six IB World Schools from around the globe to find out how they are teaching STEM subjects in new ways that students can really connect with. Plus, three members of staff from the IB Global Centres discuss how they’d like to see STEM education develop in the future.

What Came First?

Most students learn about life cycles by studying charts and diagrams. But, says Nora Ibrahim, a PYP teacher at Académie de la Capitale in Ottawa, Canada, “I wanted to do something different, so my class adopted hens’ eggs and were given the responsibility of incubating, hatching and caring for the chicks.” Setting up the experiment wasn’t straightforward.

The school had to source specialist equipment and Nora had to teach her students the basics of poultry husbandry. “The eggs had to be rotated – as their mother would do – to make sure the chicks developed properly,” she says. Students monitored the incubator’s humidity and temperature gauges, checking they were in the optimum range. The project helped students develop their critical-thinking skills.

For example, they quickly observed that as the eggs developed, they got heavier – and that eggs that weren’t gaining weight didn’t have a growing chick inside. Nora is hoping to use the project again in the future. “There’s truly nothing like a real-life experience,” she says. “Even though it takes effort, the students find it more meaningful than a theoretical experiment. The quality of the learning is incomparable.”

MYP Students Come in From the Cold

Controlling the transfer of energy is a tricky concept to visualize but Liz Swanson, MYP science teacher and workshop leader at the International School of Düsseldorf, Germany, has found a way to make the topic easier to relate to.

She set her students the task of designing an article of clothing to be worn either in extremely hot or cold climates. Projects like this help students to develop inquiring minds, as they have the chance to be curious and explore a subject in detail.

The lessons were mostly student-led, with Liz offering gentle supervision. “Students really enjoyed the unit of inquiry, because it gave them the chance to be creative,” says Liz. “They were so involved, I had to run after-hours sessions to give them more time to perfect their garments.”

While many teachers advocate having a real-life application for projects, Liz thinks her project was successful because she considered what her students would see as real-life applications, bearing in mind that something that seemed relevant to her might not seem quite so relevant to an MYP class.

It’s not Rocket Science

Using information technology for teaching is becoming increasingly common and it’s something that Dr Emma Nason, DP biology teacher at the International School of Uganda, seeks to incorporate into her lessons. Recently, she’s been using Socrative, a web-based student-response system, with her final-year students.

Socrative allows Emma to set web-based tests, which her students complete on their laptops or smartphones. The space race game, where students power rocket avatars across the screen by answering questions, is particularly popular.

“It lets me see which students understand the material, and which need more help,” she says. “Some can be shy; this allows them to participate in a low-key way so I can monitor how they’re doing.”

Socrative also enables Emma to keep in touch with students if they can’t be at school. “In the event that students can’t be in class, Socrative could allow students to log in to a virtual class.”

Making the World a Smaller Place

When Jonathan Chambers, year six teacher and mathematics subject leader at St. Nicholas School, Brazil, heard about the Bahrain-Qatar Friendship Bridge, a causeway linking the two nations, he saw a multi-disciplinary teaching opportunity.

Jonathan asked his students to not only build their own bridge but also to form companies and draft business proposals. “Some of the bridge designs were very expensive to make,” says Jonathan. “Those teams knew they had to make their proposals really strong to justify the costs.”

At the end of the four-week project, the students presented their bridges at an assembly in front of their parents. But rather than making them nervous, the thought of the assembly spurred the students on to do well.

Apart from some initial lessons about how bridge structures worked, most of the classes were self-directed by the students. Jonathan even allowed them to determine the size of their teams, which taught them valuable lessons about project planning.

Unfortunately, plans to build the real Bahrain-Qatar bridge, which would connect the two Arab nations and were originally announced in 2008, are currently on hold.

Jonathan’s project has enjoyed more success; he is aiming to run similar assignments with future year groups – and hopes his students may one day teach the real construction teams a thing or two!

Exercise Young Minds

While the PYP always emphasizes the benefits of transdisciplinary teaching and learning, Qatar Academy is putting an extra focus on cross-collaboration by using physical education (PE) to develop young learners’ understanding of number concepts.

Jennie Bonnalie, preschool arts teacher, and Johanna Hagglund, preschool teacher, developed a rigorous action experiment to test if physical activity enhanced understanding and attention spans, and helped students make stronger connections.

“We want to challenge the perception that PE is not an academic subject,” says Jennie. The two teachers devised six number-themed games, such as holding up a number card and then asking the students to get themselves into groups of that number (pictured right), and played two of these games per lesson.

“I noticed a big improvement in the students’ level of engagement,” says Johanna. “Once they started to get familiar with each game, I was surprised to see them working together and helping each other out,” adds Jennie.

Team activities such as these mathematics games also give children a great opportunity to develop social skills. With the results of the study written up, Jennie is really pleased with the integrated approach, saying “it’s been great for the teachers because we collaborate more and learn from each other. This is improving outcomes for our students, too.”

Get With the Program

Most schools have a debate club or a sports club but United Nations International School in Hanoi, Vietnam, has a coding club. And when teachers Mindy Slaughter, Heidi Kay and Michelle Matias (pictured above with fellow teacher Dan Slaughter) noticed how confident coding made the students, they decided to make it part of their day-to-day PYP lessons.

Mindy is adamant that coding isn’t as difficult as it’s perceived to be. She recommends using programs with simple interfaces, such as Scratch or Turtle, which enable students to experiment with coding straight away without having to learn a technical programming language first.

Not only do students enjoy getting to grips with the technology, teachers say that learning how to work with code has taught the students valuable, cross-disciplinary skills such as patience, resilience, and willingness to take risks.

“With coding, there is a lot of trial and error – testing things out, reworking them, and retesting, ” says Heidi. “The teacher’s role as a facilitator is crucial; you have to re-engage them with the project with each failure, and help them to see the bigger picture.”

The teachers were pleased to find out that some of their young learners have carried on coding after leaving elementary school. “It shows why it’s important to expose the students to coding,” says Michelle. “If you don’t, then they don’t know that it’s something they might actually be interested in.”

New ways of thinking

Neil Hendry - Curriculum Manager, mathematics

“STEM subjects have the reputation of only being for ‘geeks’. The IB has already done a lot to challenge this stereotype, but there’s still plenty more we can do to counter it. We need teachers who are passionate about teaching STEM subjects, and are able to share this passion with their students.

Almost every aspect of modern life has been influenced by the discoveries and achievements of STEM experts. What’s not cool about that? Sharing with students how important, interesting and cutting-edge these subjects are will help them to engage more with lessons.

To encourage children to study STEM subjects at university, teachers are often told to emphasize the potentially high salaries people with these qualifications can command. How effective is this in reality? For 15- and 16-year-olds, the idea of being wealthy is quite intangible.

Plus if you promote STEM purely on the salaries university graduates can obtain, there’s a danger that STEM graduates will end up working in another high-paying field, such as finance, rather than in a scientific or engineering industry. We have to get students excited about STEM subjects while they’re still at school so they will continue that passion into university and beyond.

The IB could help more by relating STEM to the IB learner profile. I think it’s easy to see how it applies to arts and humanities, but it’s less easy to see how the IB learner profile applies to scientific subjects. A big part of our mission is to encourage students to be internationally-minded and to think about the big issues. The world is facing many problems at the moment – climate change, the arms race, poverty – that need STEM experts to tackle them.

Because STEM fields change and evolve so quickly, teachers need to think carefully about what to teach. It’s an area that needs support and research to make sure what’s being taught is going to be relevant and useful in the future. I would like to see more well-paid, well-qualified STEM teachers who have access to good facilities, good professional development and support from their schools.

That would give students the best possible education.”

Rita Bateson - MYP Curriculum and Assessment Manager, mathematics and science

“There are fundamental problems with students lacking a desire to learn STEM subjects. This is hard to resolve because it relates closely to mathematics anxiety, which girls are more likely to suffer from than boys.

We need to focus on how to move students away from a fixed mindset (one where they believe they are inherently good at certain subjects) towards a growth mindset (where they believe they can become good at a range of subjects through hard work).

Research by Stanford University has shown that female students who are encouraged to believe their ability in mathematics is innate, rather than acquired, have lower test scores and are more likely to drop the subject. Other studies have shown the gender gap for STEM subjects almost disappears when students have a growth mindset.

The UK Institute of Physics recently found that not only do a high proportion of girls drop physics in their final year of secondary school, it’s usually the brightest ones who abandon the subject. This might be because physics is perceived as being hard to do well in, and girls are opting for ‘easier’ subjects. That’s definitely something for us to think about.

Sciences are hard, but shouldn’t be seen as too challenging. Girls are very self-critical, which can cause problems with subjects that require trial and error. If something goes wrong in a practical experiment, they take it hard. The social and emotional side of STEM subjects – learning to expect failure and respond positively to it – is something that needs to be explored as well.

One thing we don’t acknowledge often enough is the importance of the gender of the teacher. Studies have shown a strong link to girls’ achievement in a subject if they been taught by a female teacher at some point.

We must not underestimate the ambition, potential and achievements of women in STEM fields.”

Matthew White - IB Business Development Manager

“Technology is opening up new ways to teach STEM subjects so students can more easily relate them to their everyday lives. I’m working on a course we call core mathematics, which addresses students’ need to learn the more practical side of the subject.

We’re working with the UK’s Department for Education on this project because post-16 mathematics education in the UK is currently very theoretical. Students who consider studying mathematics at this level at the moment have to be really drawn to it – or ‘geeky’, as some might say.

The UK government views the standard level IB Diploma Programme course as a prime example of the type of more practical mathematics programme it would like to introduce nationally. Through the initiative, we’ll open access to an online mathematics course to six non-IB state schools in the UK, with the help of two IB World Schools.

Online learning can be useful for STEM subjects, but it will never replace the traditional teacher-classroom model entirely. There’s a shortage of mathematics teachers in the UK. Although online learning can’t solve this problem entirely, it’s useful because the teacher can connect with a class from any location. Online learning could also be beneficial in science, particularly chemistry and physics.

Practical science can be expensive and difficult to set up. Running virtual simulations of experiments could be a solution to those problems.

Working with simulations allows you to assess how students would handle a hazardous situation, and enable more complex, real-life practical tasks to be carried out. I’d like to see students using online learning to collaborate with their peers in other countries, so they get used to working across cultures. As well as improving their STEM knowledge, this would give them experience of working in international, multicultural teams, which is important preparation for the future.”