In the corner of a north London classroom, a huddle of year 7s are fizzing with excitement as they talk to each other about rocket science. Yes, you read that right. Some wander across the room to talk to the maths teacher about the forces required to propel the rockets they are building, while others start bundling up tiny parachutes into their rocket designs. A few more are busily adding fins to the sides of their rocket.
Later, the kids head to the playground and watch their rockets soar 150m in the air, while local primary school children look on, asking the year 7s lots of questions about how it all works. Among the participants, Max Paston, 12, talks about how much fun he found the activity.
“I enjoyed building the solid fuel rockets and watching them take off,” he says. As an afterthought, he adds: “And I’m now further ahead in certain areas of science than others in my class.” The school is quiet — it’s after hours. These children, and the teachers in charge, have given up their free time to learn skills that were earmarked in a government report as “strategically important and vulnerable subjects“: science, technology, engineering and maths, or Stem.
Welcome to the after-school science club at Alexandra Park School in Haringey, north London. It was launched by design and technology teacher, Oisin Scullion, as part of the after school science and engineering clubs programme set up by Stemnet, a government-funded body that aims to boost the teaching and learning of Stem subjects.
This term, Stemnet has set up an online network to encourage teachers to run clubs at their schools, predominantly for key stage 3 students. Stemnet’s website provides advice on setting up and organising clubs, and gives schools the opportunity to share project and resource ideas. The network also provides podcast and vodcast technology for students around the country to discuss their clubs’ ideas, and helps teachers to leave feedback about session ideas and ways to get students excited about Stem subjects.
Judging by the participants’ responses at Alexandra Park, the clubs seem to be working. Other sessions that Scullion has organised — and which the kids love to talk about — involved building and learning the theory behind wind turbines, and spotting Jupiter, and its moons, through powerful telescopes.
The key to the students’ enthusiasm, according to Scullion, is that the club is run very differently from lessons. “The sessions are all about learning from doing — they’re very hands—on,” he says. “We think about how things work as we use them, rather than discussing theory on its own — and the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed than at lesson time. The students are there because they want to be.” Other teachers in the school say that the after-school club participants have become more interested in science lessons, and bring ideas picked up at the club into the classroom, where they can often be found explaining them to other students.
These kinds of effects were noted in Stemnet clubs around the U.K., according to an independent evaluation carried out by the centre for science education at Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield in the north of England. Its research found that the after-school clubs led to improvements in students’ practical and thinking skills, greater understanding of Stem subjects and improved behaviour.
Now Stemnet is hoping to see those effects roll out around the country, as it expands its network from the 250 schools it started with to head towards affiliating with every school in the country by 2012. “The network is getting bigger and better all the time,” says Pat Langford, Stemnet’s director of programmes. “Its online resources — from software ideas to blog entries for kids to write, to project ideas for teachers — are expanding as more schools sign up.” When they do, schools can use the network — which is funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families for England and Wales and is free for schools — to gain access to Stemnet’s group of 19,000 professionals, ranging from brain surgeons to rocket scientists. They work as ambassadors, going into schools to talk to club members about their jobs.
Scullion says he mainly logs on to the Stemnet site to post information about projects that he has run — for other teachers to read and try out — as well as reading up on other clubs’ projects. “I’ve been able to contact teachers who have already run ideas, to get extra info,” he says. “It’s made logistics a lot easier and has reinforced my positive attitude towards the clubs. If something goes wrong, you’re not struggling alone, there are other leaders to talk to.” In the coming year, Stemnet is using the Olympics to grab kids’ attention, launching a series of 10 challenges focused around London 2012. Projects — which are to be run in conjunction with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) — will range from designing the Olympic park using computer-aided design software to creating a velodrome, and will encompass learning about sports nutrition and construction. Prizes will include trips to visit the Olympic sites, and each project is to be backed by a well-known Olympian.
“As 2012 gets closer, we hope the Olympic twist will really create a buzz for the after-school activities, and learning Stem subjects,” says Mr. Langford. “Each challenge will be independent, allowing schools to dip in and out, but we’re expecting whole schools to get involved. The after-school clubs should be about giving both kids and teachers ideas to do exciting and challenging things outside the classroom.
“The ultimate aim is to enthuse young people about learning again,” she adds. “We want the clubs to help kids to see that science isn’t just about crazy, white-haired men in labs cooking up noxious substances, and that engineering doesn’t just involve greasy car mechanics. We want to encourage them to learn that Stem subjects are a really positive force all around us — and to have fun while doing so.”