Student STEMM communicators

In previous blogs I have unpacked the different ways that our exceptional teachers make STEM learning interesting for our students. For instance, our Junior School pupils’ STEM projects relate directly to the girls’ termly topic; we emphasise Computer Science as ‘the fourth science’; and our subject specialists relate different aspects of Mathematics and science learning to what students see and experience in the real world. We do this because, in the same way that we promote 'sport for all’, we believe in ‘science for all’: that every student should be able to enjoy and see the value of her scientific studies.

We are now focusing on a very exciting new initiative: the Youth STEMM Award. The award is an achievement-based scheme, based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and boasting institutions like the University of East Anglia as partners, for students in Year 9 to the Upper Sixth. By now we are familiar with the usual STEM acronym – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – and the additional ‘M’ in the STEMM Award is for Medicine.

Some people find it helpful to think of the Youth STEMM Award as being somewhat similar to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, and there are certainly similarities: it incorporates a range of different aims and challenges under one overarching banner (STEMM); the duration of the award spans 12-18 months; and it also offers different levels of progression – Bronze, Silver and Gold.

I am very keen on the interdisciplinary nature of the Youth STEMM Award.

In brief, the award aims to:

  • Inspire the next generation of STEMM professionals – based on the belief that the best STEMM role models for young people are other young people
  • Engage the wider public, communicating across multiple platforms – based on a belief that leaders in STEMM need passion, conviction and confidence
  • Extend students’ knowledge of focused areas, while developing their wider understanding – based on the belief that STEMM professionals need to be highly skilled experts
  • Explore multiple routes into STEMM sectors, shaping students’ future pathways – based on the belief that STEMM career development should be personalised in order to be effective.

Students will undertake a certain number of hours of activity within each strand (inspiring, engaging, developing and shaping), both as part of their weekly enrichment programme as well as in their own time, linked to different areas that fall under the overarching STEMM umbrella.

The award is very much career-focused. Students will be undertaking work experience, attending lectures, developing transferable skills and going out and meeting people to talk about their projects; establishing an evidence portfolio of skills to draw on in future and to use in applications and interviews for training and employment when the time comes.

For our Year 9, Year 10 and Year 11 students especially, the award provides an opportunity for them to take on a substantial project of their own choosing, about which they are intrigued, and to see it through to fulfilment as an independent piece of work. In some ways this is similar to the Sixth Form Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), and having a chance to undertake this type of project before embarking on Sixth Form level study will be a valuable experience for the girls. Some of our Sixth Form students may in fact combine their STEMM Award project with their EPQ project, giving them additional support from our EPQ co-ordinator to tackle ever more interesting challenges and to gain further recognition of their work.

The STEMM Award is also very much about advocacy and, as our parents will know, I’m very keen indeed for our students to find their voices, and to share with others what they are passionate about. I expect the projects the girls come up with will highlight the broad range of interests and concerns that today’s young people have and I look forward to finding out more about each one as they make progress over the coming months.

One of the key principles of this scheme, then, is that students will inspire the next generation and engage the public. It might be that the students present their projects to our own Junior School pupils or children in other schools, or it might be that students’ parents, or educators and academics from relevant fields, and members of the general public discover more about what our students are doing.

This term the students spent time considering how to use the school’s website and social media channels, where they will each have the opportunity to publicise their projects and activities, as part of the engage strand. The girls thought about who might read about their projects on the website and how much background information might be required. They also considered which social platforms would be best to reach different audiences who might have an interest in their activities – from Twitter to LinkedIn, and Facebook to Instagram. The group also thought about why it might be beneficial to be able to communicate effectively about their STEMM Award activities. Examples included raising awareness of an important issue; finding relevant research that had already been conducted that may support, or oppose, their work; or potentially gaining financial or voluntary support for campaigns. 

We recognise that communication within STEMM disciplines is not always easy and so one of the most exciting parts of the scheme is its emphasis on training effective STEMM communicators.

During the EU Referendum we learnt that the UK is, apparently, ‘tired of experts’. I don’t think this is true at all, but what may be true is that people can become tired of being presented with opposing views, all of which are packaged as if they are the undisputed truth. Having a greater understanding of the way statistics are presented, or the very specific wording that might be chosen for a particular purpose, would certainly be no bad thing. So my hope is that our students will benefit from these activities as they develop the skills to communicate about potentially complex or niche areas of investigation, have the chance to engage in nuanced discussions about a range of topics within the world of STEMM, and develop the skills of cross-examining and closely analysing statistics or arguments that are presented to them.