STEM is taught as some kind of sacred yet dull grail of knowledge. Maths is formulaic and repetitive, mercilessly difficult for those who do not understand current teaching methods. Often, science is a list of strange words and bizarre concepts that students can’t grasp. Scientists are seen as antisocial, über-intelligent beings, framing their subject as the most important and the most worthy.
Meanwhile, most children don’t understand how STEM subjects translate into their world. This exclusionary, elitist view of science closes the door for most children before the journey has even begun.
Indeed, we need to frame science differently. We need to make it part of this world, not something above and beyond it. Teach students how the advent of radioactivity shaped Virginia Woolf’s use of language, or how the church reacted against scientific advances such as Copernicus’ heliocentric universe. Bring science and technology into history class, and show how the world has changed for better or for worse in relation to scientific advances. Make students debate the role of STEM in politics, whether religion or medical ethics should take priority in medical care – and how these issues impact their lives and the lives of their family and community.
Teach children how to code, and let them create art and games. Get kids wondering how technological advances could be used in media and art and take them to exhibitions that demonstrate this. Help a child to engineer the perfect sandcastle. If you show children how science intertwines with the world they love, not how it is separate from it, not only will you get more scientists, but you’ll get scientists who see and learn in different ways, who can solve problems innovatively and creatively.
More needs to be done than just getting the next generation interested in science. We need to provide more opportunities; retraining teachers to focus on girls and minorities in STEM subjects, giving them the same amount of attention and encouragement that their white male counterparts receive. Studies have shown girls are given less help in science, with girls in single-sex schools excelling in STEM subjects above their male co-ed counterparts. Give children appropriate scientific role models: female scientists, engineers of colour, LGBT+ technicians, disabled doctors, working class professors. Children need to know that anyone and everyone can be a scientist, not just the academically privileged.
New summer programs should be set up, and more scholarships – specifically aimed at helping those who haven’t had access to a good STEM education. Kids who have been neglected need a chance to catch-up. Once you have a child interested and excelling in science, you need to keep them that way. Too many children might have an initial interest, but if they languish at the bottom of the class, coast in the middle, or grow bored at the top, their interest can fade. Free after-school clubs that allow children to create their own experiments could be formed. Older children with an interest in STEM could mentor younger ones. Giving children access to actual practising scientists,
doctors, and engineers and allowing them to ask questions and be curious will unleash a new kind of learning process, like the ‘Ask a Scientist’ website where kids can question STEM professionals.
We need to utilise media that young people enjoy and consume. TV shows, such as ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’, have reached a wider audience, but the next generation of websites and educational apps must allow children to engage more deeply with STEM subjects. Games that teach as they play, like those on the Science Museum website, or ones that allow children to help scientists make new discoveries, like ‘Genes in Space’ from Cancer Research UK in which players spot patterns with data. These are the forms of media that will keep the next generation interested and engaged with science, evolving and growing interactively with their users.
The key is not just to teach children the facts of science, but the enthusiasm and the mind-set. Science is not telling children that Santa doesn’t exist, but helping them set up an experiment to determine it themselves. It’s teaching the little girl who loves fairies to keep a book recording her clues and researching all the different types. Teaching children to seek out knowledge is the real aim, whether that knowledge is real or imaginary. A belief in fairies will one day die, but an inquisitive nature will last forever. If we can recast STEM subjects in this way, we will not only secure the next generation of scientists, medics, and engineers, but also convert artists, writers, and an entire generation.
We need to refocus our lens, making STEM interesting and accessible to all, not only those who have a natural talent, or a privileged education. If we can achieve this, not only will the world become a more scientific place, but a more interesting, creative, and exciting one to boot.
This essay was originally written as an entry to the 2015 RCSU Science Challenge. The original title was “How do we inspire the next generation to take an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths)?”, which was the question posed by judge Ruth Winthcup.