Blog: Improving STEM education with new technology

Published: 27 Oct 2020

Author: James Perkins
Blog: Improving STEM education with new technology

I have had an interest in enriching the experience of schoolchildren, especially those at secondary level, ever since I made the leap from being a science researcher to being a science teacher. When delivered in the right way, genuine research and long-term projects involving collaboration, research, networking and problem-solving can help to contextualise the regular science curriculum and inspire students.

"This technology brings classroom theory to life using state of the art, genuine research technology that can bring context and meaning to science." - James Perkins, Fellow

I wanted to investigate best practice for science research in a high-school setting and find out how schools in other countries delivered such programmes, either as an outreach and engagement tool or to enhance the student experience of their own pupils. This led me to use my Churchill Fellowship to travel to Germany and North America to gain a better understanding of the variety of opportunities for science research at high school level and the differences between projects.

Even during the pandemic, programmes supporting extracurricular activities and curriculum enhancement need to continue. This is especially important as the pandemic has already had a huge impact on children’s education. With so many school trips cancelled and events going virtual, the tactile, hands-on experience is becoming a thing of the past.

However, I have been working on a project with Hitachi High Technologies to bring a tabletop scanning electron microscope to the UK for a STEM initiative. The initiative involves the Royal Microscopical Society (RMS), The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), Oxford Instruments and the Natural History Museum (NHM). This project is the culmination of many discussions between Dr Alex Ball (Head of Imaging at the core research labs at the Natural History Museum) and the folks at Hitachi whom I met during my Fellowship travels in America and Canada. Around £100,000-worth of research equipment will be loaned to schools during term time for school research projects, curriculum enhancement and outreach events. The equipment will then based in the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum during the school holidays, so that it can be used for citizen science and amateur scientists.

The Hitachi tabletop scanning electron microscope (SEM) at the Natural History Museum 

The loan project model is the first of its kind in Europe and follows successful examples of its implementation in other regions, such as the STEM Inspire project in Australia. The idea came about whilst I was visiting high schools in the USA, Canada and Germany as part of my Fellowship travels. I was especially interested in looking at how research-grade equipment and expertise was being used to enhance the curriculum and enrich student experiences in high schools. I wanted to understand why such equipment was being used and understand the logistical and practical challenges for instruction and supervision of enquiry-led teaching.

Programmes involving advanced equipment or expertise are driven by a desire to reach not only the most academically able, but those who show aptitude early on in enquiry-led STEM learning, (such as project work or research tasks), in order to boost the STEM workforce. Many high schools in the USA have developed research classes or collaborations with universities and industry to boost such opportunities for students through a variety of equipment and expertise, including the use of a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Having a SEM is not just an exciting outreach opportunity to showcase science, but also provides a deep-impact, pathway-changing strategy that, anecdotally, can lead to greatly improved outcomes. These outcomes include students applying for further study at college or university when previously they may not have, shifting across to a different area of study that they may not have thought accessible, and improving confidence by producing genuinely extraordinary outcomes such as published science research.

Collaborations between USA and UK high schools have arisen from my Fellowship, including an ongoing relationship with three schools I visited in California, German and Pennsylvania. The use of the tabletop SEM is the next step in these projects. In addition, there is evidence of positive outcomes for disadvantaged students and members of the BAME community in schools in the USA. Schools with staff expertise will often work with their feeder primary schools and the wider community to provide a large network of SEM users.

During term time, it is hoped that deep-impact student projects can take place where genuine new research is led by schools or in collaboration with the Natural History Museum and other academic institutions. With a long-term loan of several weeks, the microscope can be used to enhance teaching of the curriculum or be a hub for other users in a school's locality. The Institute for Research in Schools is excited to be able to offer loan of such equipment to its affiliate schools with a track record of providing excellent STEM research opportunities, as well as being a gateway for schools that are keen to start research programmes of their own. The British Science Association itself recognises that long-term research projects have a positive effect, especially within disadvantaged groups, as demonstrated through its CREST awards.

Students using the Hitachi tabletop scanning electron microscope (SEM) at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham

This technology brings classroom theory to life using state of the art, genuine research technology that can bring context and meaning to science. Within a day of receiving the SEM in my school I overheard one of the year 11’s from the session say, “that was the best lunchtime of my entire life.”

Since returning from my Fellowship I moved to the head of science position at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, introducing a research programme for several year groups. For two years in a row our science department has been shortlisted for the Times Education Supplement awards, for which our teachers and technicians are incredibly proud. It proves that there is real value in enriching, broadening and deepening the science experience available to students at school.

The Hitachi microscope will start its tour at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham in October 2020, when it will begin a tour of UK schools over the 2020/21 academic year.

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