Research from the sector’s trade association, the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) shows that 75% of schools are now prioritising science over other core subjects. While this survey of 235 primary science co-ordinators shows that 89% of primary students are more interested in science than in previous years (31% in 2006), there are still many students who, from the age of five or six years, have formed strong opinions, with many switching off from science. If they are not excited and inspired by then, it is probably too late, according to this survey. Another area for concern is the marked and damaging stereotypical image of girls in science.
Challenge the stereotypes
The Department of Education & Professional Studies at King’s College London produced a research paper on gender stereotypes. The paper, Aspires: Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10-14, found that gender issues are evident from a young age.
Girls are less likely than boys to aspire to science careers, even though a higher percentage of girls than boys rate science as their favourite subject. Once they reach the age of 12-13 years, the research found that 18% of boys and 12% of girls aspire to become scientists; in comparison, 64% of girls aspire to careers in the arts.
‘…the work must start in the classroom if we are to encourage and inspire girls to take pathways to exciting and fulfilling careers in these areas’
Girls who define themselves as ‘girly’ (highly feminine) are particularly unlikely to aspire to a career in science. Girls who do aspire to science and STEMrelated careers tend to be highly academic and are more likely to describe themselves as ‘not girly’.
In terms of addressing these stereotypes, there are several useful sources of information:
Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) believes that the work must start in the classroom if we are to encourage and inspire girls to take pathways to exciting and fulfilling careers in these areas. Their website includes useful resources to encourage girls to consider a career in science.
Another site that challenges stereotypical views about science is ‘This is what a scientist looks like’. This website is dedicated to changing the overwhelming stereotype that science is conducted behind closed doors by unapproachable old, white men. It highlights the fact that, when searching Google for images of ‘scientists’, only two out of the first 20 will be women. Having carried this out for myself, the results were not so marked, but the point made is important and real.
Asking your students to draw a picture of a scientist can be an interesting activity. Most will draw white men in lab coats, with glasses and either bald or with a big Einstein hairstyle. Positive images of women scientists, such as Marie Curie, Mary Anning and, more recently media figures such as Alice Roberts, Danielle George and Helen Czerski are important figureheads to get girls as well as boys to realise how captivating and intriguing science can be.
A report to the Wellcome Trust (Primary science in the UK: a scoping study, by Dr. Colette Murphy, Queens University Belfast) reveals that children from age 5 are more likely to embrace science when it is made practical and more relevant to their lives. BESA’s figures certainly suggest that the Government’s shift towards more practical learning activities in the new science curriculum appears to be having a positive impact, with 76% of primary schools reporting an increasing desire to spend more time on practical science activities.
A number of publishers are producing science schemes, aligned to the new curriculum, which embed ‘working scientifically’ across the curriculum. Such as Switched on Science from Rising Stars. When planning the curriculum, teachers should ensure that each unit has clear learning objectives, success criteria and a wealth of activity ideas, including hands-on practical experiments and investigations. The range of activities should be inexpensive in terms of resources and flexible to implement in order to engage children.
‘Meeting real scientists and ensuring that women are well represented is something to encourage in schools’
There are a number of science projects, websites and resources, some freely available to teachers:
The Royal Institution: Experimental site is a source of science-based, cross-curricular activities created to ‘bring science home.’ One example is an activity that explores the world of static electricity, by making charged objects move without touching them. It is a really fun way of getting children interested in science: simply rub an inflated balloon on a woollen jumper, balance a pencil on the top of a bottle and, when you move the balloon close to the pencil, the pencil will start to follow the balloon’s movements.
Try “Great Egg Race” style challenges. For example making parachutes in the classroom to keep an egg from breaking. Starting with a plastic bag, some string, sticky tape, a clean yoghurt pot and an egg, the children can construct a parachute with the egg in the ‘basket.’ If you drop the parachute and egg from an upstairs classroom, will it survive the fall? How can you stop the egg from breaking; how can you slow the fall? Does the parachute material or its size make a difference? Try using another type of material, but remember, to ensure that it is a fair test, you must only change one aspect of the experiment each time. This introduces the concepts of mass, weight and speed and encourages the children to question the fairness of testing.
Alternatively, given just spaghetti and marshmallows, who can build the tallest tower?
The ‘Kitchen Sink’ approach to science is all about using everyday items that are in the home with which to do experiments, and this can work well in primary schools as well as provide inspiration for parents to try out at home. The Kitchen Pantry Scientist includes a number of experiments ideal for primary schools. To show children how plants grow towards the light, you only need an old shoe box, sticky tape, cardboard and a potato to see how, after a few weeks, the stems grow out of the potato and weave their way around the maze towards the light. Also check out this Pinterest board for other great science ideas.
Other websites that provide inspiration include:
- ASE’s primary upd8
- The British Science Association
- Primary Engineer
- The Royal Academy of Engineering
With the new primary computing curriculum high on the agenda, digital storytelling is a good way of incorporating technology in science lessons. Teachers could ask children to create animations or short films to explain what can be learned from a particular experiment. Other ideas include using a time-lapse camera to record plant growth or the slow motion video function on an iPad to make it easier to measure the bounce of a falling ball.
It is important to let parents know what you are doing in class, to encourage them to carry out such activities at home.
Meeting real scientists
Meeting real scientists and ensuring that women are well represented is something to encourage in schools. Outreach programmes at a local university would be a good place to start, or visit: STEMNET or Stem Directories to to find people in your area who are happy to come to the school to talk about their job, and run some activities with the children. Or you could use Skype in the Classoom to find scientists from further afield.
Promoting the various science careers and inviting people in, such as plumbers and engineers (professions that the students may not have considered as requiring an understanding of science), is also a constructive activity. Such professional expertise may already be available through the parents.
Also look into setting up STEM clubs. Run as an after-school activity, or as part of a weekly lesson, these can be a high point for children as well as building a love of science. Having teams of students building bridges and testing their strength is the type of activity that can run across a whole term. The students work on revising their design after each test. Even at a young age, they will enjoy bridge-building competitions and investigating and analysing beam designs and material properties.
It is so important that primary school teachers enable all children to think of themselves as scientists. Science is not something just for intelligent boys; scientists come from all walks of life, and work in all sorts of industries. By highlighting the scientists that children might commonly meet, such as doctors, plumbers, vets, electricians, dentists, hairdressers and beauticians, children will learn from an early age that many careers use various aspects of science in their daily work.
These stereotypes should be challenged by, firstly, making science at school engaging, and also by demonstrating that science is a subject that is open to all children, whatever their social group or gender.
Danny Nicholson was a science teacher in two Kent schools before moving to teacher training, initial teacher training and consultancy. His work with leading schools’ publisher, Rising Stars, to create Switched on Science provided the content for many of the ideas outlined in this article.