Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Setting up a Club

Setting up a STEM Club

If you want to set up a STEM club, there is a lot of material online to help you.  You can also get help from the school, other ambassadors, and support from others in the School Gate SET community. 

Here are 7 suggestions to get you started:

1) Teach Primary has got a great brief overview of STEM Clubs - aimed at teachers, but lots of useful links to inspire you to get going. 

2) STEMNET has a step-by-step guide for setting up a STEM Club.  You don't have to let your local STEMNET contact know you've got a club, but it is a good idea, as they may have resources they can offer, as well as general advice and support. The STEMNET Clubs website is well worth a look, including the specific information for STEM Ambassadors, and how to fund your club. It has extensive links to activity resources, so it is worth bookmarking!

3) Science Clubs – a professional development unit from the Primary Science Teaching Trust. This is written for teachers, and is now a few years old, so not all the links work, but the content is great, very thorough and very practical. Unlike quite a lot of material on line, this is specifically aimed at primary schools.   There are interviews with STEM Ambassador, Sarah Walton, about her experience of being involved in a club.

4) CREST Star is a UK-wide award scheme run by the British Science Association encouraging primary school children to solve STEM problems through practical investigation. It costs £40 to register which gives you access to all their investigations and resources for a year.  After that annual renewal costs £20. 

We tried these resources in our club, but, to be honest, the children didn’t want to do the writing and recording so they didn’t progress to get the awards.  I was happy to let them explore and just talk, so we ended up doing less structured activities. I think the fact that our club was after school on a Friday contributed to their reluctance.  Look at Vicky Raynor’s blog for a personal insight in using these resources more successfully!  (Kate Bellingham)

5) Six Week STEM Club is an initiative from MerseySTEM, again designed for teachers to run, but there is lots of advice that would be useful for a School Gate SET parent. It is aimed at someone keen to run a club, but wary of the commitment. Although the initiative is designed for clubs in secondary school, it’s well worth a look. 

6) Young Engineers support primary STEM clubs including the free loan of kits for running a Making Knexions event.  They also run STEM Challenge events where their leaders run the activities designing and building rockets, drag racers or hydro-electric generators and develop the children’s team working and interpersonal skills.

7) If you want to set up an after school  Code Club, there are lots of resources to help.  There are already over 2,000 set up round the UK, so you are likely to find someone local to mentor you. Meanwhile CoderDojo is worth a look - it's a global network of clubs.

Let us know how you get on, so others can learn from your experience, and do get in touch if you have anything the School Gate SET community can help you with.

What is STEM?

What is STEM? 

STEM is simply an acronym to cover science, technology, engineering and maths.  However, there can be confusion as it has been adopted by different groups to mean different things. It is worth making sure you are talking about the same thing.

- Some people may use the term as shorthand their local STEMNET contact, eg, we had STEM in last week to do some activities with the children, or do you work for STEM?

- In some cases the description of STEM is very broad, including subjects from medicine to astronomy, engineering to IT.  In others it can be much narrower:  A few years ago the HE STEM project looking at STEM in universities put the focus on chemistry, physics and engineering as 'shortage subjects'.  Initially, the National STEM Centre only considered 'Design and Technology' to be in their Technology section, due to funding obligations, but now it is much broader, including  ICT or Computing.

- STEMM? New acronyms keep popping up.  STEMM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine, and is mostly seen at university level. 

- STEAM is a relatively new acronym which has A for Arts. This has cropped up in various guises in the US, such as STEMtoSTEAM and STEAM-notSTEM where the concern is to ensure creativity is still valued.  In the UK, especially in primary school, this may be less of an issue, as creativity and design are seen to play and important part in engineering and technology in particular.

- Meanwhile British Science Week has rebranded back to 'science' avoiding STEM although it covers technology, engineering and maths as well.  It was seen to be too clumsy. 

The conclusion is that, as with any acronym, it is worth checking not just what it stands for, but the context in which it is being used!

First Lego League

First Lego League  is a global science and engineering team competition.  There are various challenges including designing, building and programming a LEGO Mindstorms robot, researching and presenting on a topic relevant to the competition, which changes each year, and demonstrating 'core values' of teamworking and respect.

The main competition is for 9 - 14 year olds, however this year there will be a Junior section for 6 - 9 year olds.

Run in the UK by the IET, with regional and national finals, this is a superb educational experience for all involved, reflecting many of the skills valued in engineering, including planning, problem solving, programming, teamwork, research, presentation and communication skills.

But before you dive in, a couple of points to think about: to do it properly takes a lot of time and effort from the pupils and their mentors, whether teachers or STEM Ambassadors, and the rules certainly take quite a bit of getting your head around the first time you take part. Also, the kit is not cheap - if your school does not already have LEGO Mindstorm kits, you will need to be sure that the investment will be worth it by putting aside time and energy to use them for FLL and in the classroom.

Monday, 15 June 2015

STEM Ambassadors

Should you register as a STEM Ambassador?
How can other STEM Ambassadors help your child’s primary school?

There is plenty of useful information about STEM Ambassadors on the STEMNET website – do take a look.  However, I’m writing this post because I have had specific experience of being a STEM Ambassador and a School Gate Mum. 

STEM Ambassadors are volunteers with skills or interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths who offer their time and expertise to inspire young people and/or support STEM teachers. Clearly you don’t need to be a registered ‘STEM Ambassador’ to do these things, but signing up is free and does get you the DBS checks, insurance cover, and basic training in STEM in schools and it also links you into a local network of other ambassadors. The only obligation is to do one ‘activity’ a year.

I would thoroughly recommend registering as a STEM Ambassador and joining the 27,000 people who already have.  However, still keep in touch with School Gate SET because, from my experience, career break / part time parents are not typical Ambassadors.  As a part-time working mum, I found I was available during the school day on a regular and frequent basis unlike many ambassadors who work full time so can only give limited time to a school, or are in a company that supports them to go into schools and provides them with the activities to deliver.  

The other great thing to think about is how other STEM Ambassadors can help at your child’s school. Talk to the science, technology and maths coordinators at the school and they will probably be very happy for you to get in touch with the local STEM Ambassador contact and discuss ideas for getting other ambassadors into your school.  Have a look on the STEMNET website for case studies for ideas.

So, even if you don’t feel confident running STEM Club or helping support the teacher in class activities, simply having the time to contact others who will, and having the expertise to liaise between the scientists/engineers and the teachers could be really valuable.

Ultimately, what you do in your child’s school will depend on you and the teachers, but becoming a STEM Ambassador and linking into your local network is a great place to start.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Kate Bellingham: My School Gate Story

When my eldest child started at Primary School, I was working part time and was happy to help out as part of the ‘Mums Army’.  The requests included the Christmas fete, helping on school outings and listening to readers.  I tried all of them, but was most comfortable sitting in the corner of the reception class with a small child next to me and sharing in the adventures of Biff, Chip and Kipper.  I felt that I was doing something useful, but was also getting a better understanding of my children’s education.

When my son moved up to Year 1, I did too.  At some stage, I must have offered to help with Maths.  I can’t remember exactly when, but I do remember I was not immediately welcomed with open arms.  Having since trained as a Maths teacher, I understand why – Maths is taught in a very different way to how it was in my school days, and you wouldn’t want an enthusiastic parent confusing things.  Also, I expect the teacher was concerned it would be more work for her to manage another classroom assistant, rather than just someone sitting in the corner plodding through the Oxford Reading Tree. Someone has since suggested that the reluctance could have been a lack of confidence from the teacher when faced with someone with an A level in Further Maths and a Masters in Electronics.  That might be true with some teachers, but I’m pretty sure it was not the case here.

So, I started helping out with Maths.  And I loved it! Other parents might prefer helping with cutting and sticking, or with sports day, but I was in my element.  I found I was really looking forward to going into school to help, and started toying with the idea of retraining as a teacher.  What was clear to me from my experience at my children’s school, however, was the I wasn’t cut out to work in primary, so I offered my services a morning a week in the local secondary school.  I went on to train and work there as a Maths teacher for two years, so my volunteering at the primary school stopped for a while.

Some years later, in my still part-time ‘day job’ I was involved with Young Engineers Clubs and the newly emerging STEM Clubs in secondary schools.  I asked Pixies Hill if I could run an after-school club for them.  The only day we could fit it in was Friday, and children signed up for the term to stay from 3.15 – 4.30.  I’m realistic that some parents saw it as free/cheap childcare, however, I was thrilled when we got as many as 16 Year 5 and 6 children (out of a possible 60) turning up bouncing full of energy in the dining room at the end of the school week.

I will write more about my specific experience and advice on running a primary STEM club in a different blog post, but the main thing to add here is how everything changed for the even better when I found someone to help.  As a STEM Ambassador myself, I approached the local Hertfordshire SETPoint and was put in touch with a number of volunteers, one of whom was Phil Robbins.  He was a young, enthusiastic practising engineer working nearby and looking to get experience to support his application to gain chartered status with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. His company finished work early on Fridays, and by working through his lunch break, he was able, with the blessing of his boss, to get away in time come along most weeks to help out at the club. 

My children left the school, but we still carried on until both Phil and I were offered new jobs which would make it impossible to attend the school regularly. The club ran for 7 terms, ending at Christmas 2012, and children and parents who were involved still talk about it fondly when they see me.

There was a clear benefit to the school and the students involved.  Phil is now a chartered engineer, and I have gained a great deal of insight by having the direct connection with STEM activities, and the link with my children’s school.  However, if I hadn’t had the idea, or the confidence, to offer to help with maths, or run the club, I would probably have still have been listening to readers and helping with sports day – not that these are any less valuable, but there are probably other parents more capable at these and without the STEM skills. 

And a final benefit was to enable the children and their parents to be introduced in person to a woman engineer.  At the end of the first term I arranged for the children to show examples of their work at parents’ sharing assembly, and they introduced it with ‘We do STEM Club every week with Emily’s Mum.  She’s an Engineer’.  How much influence could that have?  We’ll never know, but in a world where the stereotypes are still pretty pervasive, every little helps.

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