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Publication - Report

Supporting Scotland's STEM Education and Culture - Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group - second report

Published: 28 Feb 2012
Part of:

Recommendations for improving the profile of science in the community and enhancing science and engineering education.

133 page PDF


133 page PDF


Supporting Scotland's STEM Education and Culture - Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group - second report

133 page PDF



Real life science and technology and the Curriculum for Excellence

The introduction of Curriculum for Excellence provides an opportunity to increase the 'topical' aspects of science in the classroom to allow young people to make their learning more relevant. Knowledge of new developments in science is vital for those young people thinking about a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics ( STEM). However, it is equally important that all our young people have an opportunity to learn about and understand topical issues in STEM, to allow them subsequently to make informed life choices with confidence on a range of issues, whatever their destination after school. Increasing young people's engagement with practical or 'real life' STEM therefore contributes more widely to Scotland as a 'science nation', not just as an investment in their future but by providing them with the tools to influence their own families and communities today.

In the classroom, increasing young people's engagement and understanding of practical STEM has the potential to make a marked difference in their enjoyment of science lessons. Being able to see the relevance of STEM appears to be a key factor in young people's enjoyment of science lessons, particularly at secondary level. Focus group research with secondary pupils carried out as part of the Scottish Government's 'Do something creative. Do science' campaign found that even pupils who had enjoyed science at the primary level look for more engaging and challenging secondary lessons that make STEM relevant to their own lives. Furthermore, research published by the Wellcome Trust in September 2011 suggests that around 40% of young people struggle to see the real life relevance of their science lessons. Stimulating activities, projects and practical work that bring to life the theory learned in the classroom can make a significant difference in reinforcing and strengthening learning, and help to ensure that young people have a positive experience of secondary school science lessons and Curriculum for Excellence.

At the same time, the fundamental pillars of knowledge and understanding must be sustained. This is a hard challenge. However, teachers need not work in isolation. There is a strong 'science engagement' sector in Scotland, with many organisations delivering a range of initiatives and activities that complement and strengthen formal science learning and provide young people with opportunities to experience at first hand the practical relevance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Real life STEM outside the classroom

There is no formal requirement within Curriculum for Excellence for 'engagement with real life science', nor any benchmark of what is expected, though the development of interdisciplinary teaching will encourage such engagement. There are a range of methods of engagement, but no 'one size fits all' solution. What inspires some young people may not work for others, or even be available to them.

Further, many young people will already be exposed to opportunities to make sense of STEM outside the classroom. This could include visits to science centres, museums, zoos, botanic gardens or science festivals with their families, or involvement in club or group activities with their peers. Websites, broadcast and print media are other avenues that allow young people to find about STEM, particularly around new developments and the ethical issues involved. In addition, today's young people are familiar with STEM applications (particularly ICT-related products) to an extent that was not the case with previous generations. This should provide more opportunities for the link between theory and practical application to be made clear in a way that is engaging and relevant to young people.

Research evidence

A Wellcome Trust research report [ 79] suggested that young people feel more engaged with science and wider STEM subjects when they can see the relevance to themselves. This includes STEM's impact and applications in their current everyday lives as well as whether they have a bearing on future study, training and career opportunities. Furthermore, young people value and enjoy opportunities for learning outside the classroom and tend to feel more engaged with science as a result of undertaking such activities.

There is a broad range of opportunities for young people - and the wider public - to engage with STEM, and many of these are listed in the Workstream 3 report published on the Scottish Government we bsite [80] . They include science centres and festivals, touring outreach programmes for schools and community audiences, botanic gardens and wildlife parks/zoos, aquaria, museums and observatories. There are also a number of programmes involving STEM club activities and project work that may lead to a badge or award under a recognised competition or scheme. The wider science engagement and scientific communities appear to be committed to assisting schools to deliver STEM learning. This is particularly the case with the scientists and researchers signed up to the STEM Ambassador scheme, run across the UK by STEMNET, and involves STEM professionals from industry, colleges, universities, research institutes and other employers assisting schools with STEM learning and teaching, e.g. assisting with practical lessons, running STEM clubs, talking at careers events, developing new practical activities and judging STEM challenges. National Foundation for Educational Research ( NFER) research on the STEM Ambassadors programme found that "Six out of ten pupils (61%) felt that taking part in activities with a STEM Ambassador had made a 'great difference' or 'some difference' to their enjoyment of, and interest in, science."

While this range of support and resources is to be welcomed, there appears to be a lack of co-ordination between practitioners, leading to schools and teachers being targeted by multiple marketing materials and initiatives in a way that could be, at best, confusing and, at worst, off-putting, according to the SEEAG stakeholder consultation responses [81] and evidence submitted as part of the Science and Technology Select Committee's recent investigation into practical lessons and field trips [82] . Several respondents to the SEEAG stakeholder consultation felt that better co-ordination of STEM activities, particularly around geographically-based hubs, could be a way forward to assist teachers and prevent duplication.

At the same time, school uptake of opportunities appears to be dependent on the interplay of a number of factors, including quality of 'the product', its availability (from both a geographical and cost/resources point of view) and teachers' awareness of what is being offered. Add on timetabling issues and the need for individual teachers to recognise the value of such initiatives and it is clear that there are likely to be many pupils who will have limited access to science engagement opportunities that bring practical experience to their science learning.

Many respondents supported the development of a 'one stop shop' resource that could help teachers, with ideas around how particular aspects of STEM within the curriculum could be 'brought to life' by particular activities, initiatives or visits.

The SEEAG consultation responses from industry organisations [81] in particular suggested that there was strong support for industry to be more involved with schools. This could have a number of benefits, including introducing STEM 'role models' to the classroom, and giving teachers an opportunity to increase their knowledge and skills related to current practical STEM applications. However, several non-industry respondents felt that not enough industry partners are aware of existing schemes (such as STEM Ambassadors), and that some companies prefer to initiate their own activities, particularly with schools local to their premises. As highlighted above, this latter approach risks adding to confusion around what is available for schools.

Another key issue from the consultation was around funding of science engagement initiatives. There was a recognition that a number of possible funding streams, including charitable trusts, industry sponsorship and local and Scottish Government (particularly from the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser), are currently available and appreciated by those delivering practical STEM projects. However, there was a feeling that there were opportunities to set a more strategic direction for projects that were funded in future, particularly by Scottish Government. In addition it was felt that funding could be used as a driver for partnership working across a number of organisations, involving Government and Industry's monies, to help improve co-ordination of activities.

Discussion and recommendations

Schools need to be aware of the opportunities open to them for their pupils to engage with practical STEM. There appears to be no single Scottish paper directory or website where teachers can find advice and information on relevant activities. Instead schools are sent numerous programmes, brochures and leaflets for a multitude of initiatives. The recently-established ' STEM Central' website ( developed by Education Scotland has the potential to develop into a key resource for teachers and young people, particularly in highlighting aspects of practical STEM and their relevance to class work. It is currently engineering led but if widened it could serve the whole community.

Recommendation 6.1
It is recommended that STEM Central be extended and supported by Education Scotland so as to develop it into a useful 'one stop shop' for teachers, learners and parents in terms of practical STEM and science engagement ideas, activities and providers. This support should include encouraging STEM engagement providers to contribute information and links to/from STEM Central.

Awareness is only one factor in the take-up rates of practical STEM activities and initiatives. Quality and availability, as indicated in the preceding section, have a large role to play too. It is clear that there are differences in the quality or depth of engagement offered by, for example, regular and repeated activities against one-off visits from outreach initiatives. Furthermore, activities that may look similar in style or method of engagement may differ in the quality of activity or presentation. One bad experience can damage the reputation of the whole sector. It would be helpful, therefore, to develop some common quality standards for practitioners to use. As important, particularly in the context of this report, is that the engagement should be in support of teachers, good pedagogical practice, and CfE.

Recommendation 6.2
It is recommended that the basic engagement for all schools described in 6.3 below, being offered through the four providers together with the Science Centres and the major Science Festivals, are reviewed on a four year cycle by Education Scotland.

Availability of opportunities is a critical issue. For reasons of location and/or cost, not all schools across Scotland are currently able to access many of the practical STEM initiatives on offer. Schools in the Highlands and Islands in particular are distant from a science centre, although the number of science festivals in the region (seven) suggests that, at key points in the year at least, a wider range of activities are available to local schools in those particular areas. Yet there will also be other schools within our towns and cities that have very limited opportunities to access activities due to the costs involved. In both these cases it is important that science centres and other organisations offering outreach activities (including colleges, universities and research institutes) target their resources to reach those schools in most need, as well as the 'good customers' in more affluent and/or populous areas. It is essential that all students, teachers and schools should be able to use and participate in a core of national Science engagements.

Recommendation 6.3
It is recommended that schools are supported by local authorities and the providers by the Scottish Government so as to ensure that all schools are enabled to benefit from a STEM Ambassador(s), a Generation Science visit, the establishment of a Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) Young Engineers and Science Clubs (YESC) and an annual visit out to a Science Centre or Festival.

There appears to be broad support for a network of regional 'hubs' to be established as a way to help co-ordinate and map local provision, publicise opportunities and address issues around the quality of STEM engagement activities. The idea of regional hubs for science promotion or STEM engagement is not a new one. STEMNET, the UK-wide organisation that promotes STEM and is funded by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ( DBIS) to run the STEM Ambassador scheme, contracts four organisations in Scotland to deliver its programmes: Science Connects in west Scotland, Global Science in the east, Dundee Science Centre for the north-east and STEM North Scotland/University of the Highlands and Islands ( UHI) for the Highlands and Islands. However, the STEMNET contracts mainly focus on providing advice to schools and the recruitment of STEM Ambassadors. As discussed above, young people are just as likely to explore 'real life' STEM with their families and friends outside school. Consequently, a hub network for this mix of school-based and family/public audience may sit more easily with other organisations, for example the science centres in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, perhaps also working with UHI.

In addition, these regional hubs could play a key role in working with partner organisations to establish quality guidelines, identify funding opportunities and drive partnerships to widen provision and prevent duplication. In this way several of the existing issues around take-up of practical STEM initiatives by schools could be addressed, including the issues of quality and availability highlighted above.

These hubs should play a key liaison role with other providers (including STEMNET contract holders, science festivals, STEM outreach initiatives, industry programmes) and work together to establish guidance on how to evaluate the success and impact of activities.

Such hubs should also work with science engagement providers to map local provision of activities and assist partnerships to make the best use of resources and forge strong links with local and regional Professional (Teacher) Learning Communities ( PLCs) and work with STEMNET contract holders to match schools and industry/university/colleges as appropriate, according to local research/business strengths and educational needs. To ensure appropriate geographical coverage, hubs should, if necessary, establish smaller coordinating centres, e.g. Glasgow Science Centre's partnership with Whitelee Visitor Centre.

Hubs should also work with partners to raise awareness about the benefits of suitably evaluated activities and share best practice in order to provide teachers with assurance as to the quality of events and activities. Finally, these hubs would liaise with Scottish Government on future priorities and strategic aims for STEM engagement.

Recommendation 6.4
We therefore recommend that the Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor work with the Scottish Science Centre Network and the University of the Highlands and Islands to establish a network of regional STEM engagement hubs. These hubs should focus on improving access, quality and delivery of practical STEM activities to schools.

The development of co-ordination hubs would go some way to addressing some of the apparent concerns of teachers and the sector around the opportunities for practical STEM in the classroom. Yet a number of issues affecting take-up by teachers remain, particularly around quality, availability and awareness.

There are already a number of initiatives with strong industry buy-in that give young people access to practical STEM. These include, but are not limited to, the Shell Education Service, support by OPITO (the oil and gas industry organisation dealing with skills, training and workforce development) for the Institute of Physics' Lab in a Lorry touring laboratory, the Young Engineers and Science Clubs ( YESC) run in Scotland by SCDI (Scottish Council for Development and Industry) with support from its member organisations, and the STEM Ambassador scheme.

In terms of funding science engagement initiatives, the current financial climate is having an impact on the ability of many organisations to raise funds from other sources in order to keep costs to schools down. Increased industry support for the initiatives highlighted in the paragraph above - perhaps in place of some companies' alternative plans for their own education initiatives - has the potential to make a real difference in the classroom. The Scottish Government is not in a position to make up the shortfall. Yet there should be scope for it to take a more strategic approach when funding some key initiatives. This may be particularly around continuing to ensure that funding is allocated to appropriate projects representing a good geographical reach across Scotland.

Recommendation 6.5
It is recommended that industry, rather than through individual contributions, should provide their support through the main providers listed in 6.3 so as to provide high quality, independently evaluated, educational benefit with national coverage.

Recommendation 6.6
It is recommended that any future science engagement funding available from the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser should reflect the strategic priorities of this report alongside Scottish Government objectives.

The Role of Universities

Scotland's universities provide access to an enormous range of internationally-recognised STEM research. Scotland continues to excel as a science nation and ranks first in the world in terms of numbers of research citations relative to its GDP. This science excellence is an excellent resource to inspire and enthuse young people about science and the role STEM plays in all of our lives.

In many cases, our universities showcase their research by providing high quality outreach activities either as a structured programme of engagement or by individual researchers. The university sector also increasingly recognises that science communication skills are important for researchers so they may raise awareness of their science to the general public, media and policy-makers. University scientists work in partnership with the STEM Ambassador scheme and are regular contributors at Scotland's science centres and science festivals. In many cases, university scientists provide the backbone for year-round engagement activities. Individual science departments within universities actively support Higher, Advanced Higher and Baccalaureate science projects either by hosting senior pupils within their laboratories or by lending equipment to enable experiments to be done within schools. At present, this appears to be a rather ad hoc service and could benefit from a more strategic approach as part of a local engagement network or science learning community.

Research council funding now requires scientists to allocate some resource within research grants as part of an 'Impact Plan'. The purpose of impact is to raise awareness with a variety of audiences, including school pupils and teachers. This process provides additional opportunities for science engagement providers to work in partnership with university researchers to deliver innovative and creative ways of bringing cutting-edge science into the classroom. Finally, university scientists also work with industry, teachers and CPD providers to develop and deliver practical and topical resources for classroom use.

This strong STEM research and teaching platform within the Scottish universities provides an excellent basis for partnerships to develop between ITE colleges and mainstream STEM departments within the universities that will support and enhance both science engagement and the development of new degrees to replace the B Ed recommendations in the Donaldson Report [12] . The extent to which this currently happens appears to be limited.

Recommendation 6.7
We recommend that Universities Scotland help and support universities by providing examples and case studies on how to work more closely with science engagement providers to fulfil the impact criteria of research council funding.