STEM by stealth

STEM by stealth

It’s known that children have to be interested in STEM subjects at a young age and a new initiative seeks to hook them as early as possible, as Peter Jackson reports.

STEM subjects form the building blocks and foundation for progress and development
in engineering. In recognition of that, an initiative which is based in Burnley, Lancashire, is working to inspire children at primary school age in studying STEM subjects and engineering careers.

Primary Engineer is a not-for-profit organisation which was set up in 2005 to encourage young people to consider careers in STEM related professions. It was the brainchild of Susan Scurlock, a former secondary school teacher and herself a frustrated engineer.

She says: “My father wouldn’t let me be an engineer because I was a girl. At the time I was at school you weren’t allowed to take tech drawing because it was a boys only subject. So, I couldn’t be an engineer, so this is my revenge.

“In 2005 there was a call from the then Department for Trade and Industry to get more engineers coming through the ranks and at the time we felt we had the answer which was to train primary teachers how to teach practical design technology, maths and science and then you’ve got your engineers.’’

It made a successful application to the government for seed corn funding and it has grown since then. The organisation says it believes that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are key subjects to help secure opportunities and career paths for future generations, and that work on this must begin in primary schools.

Its work, which is supported by industry, education and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, is based on the principle of ‘STEM by stealth’, a term coined by a teacher after attending a Primary Engineer course.

Scurlock explains: “One of the kids came up to her and said, `I don’t like you anymore because you’ve been teaching us maths and science without telling us’.’’ It means practically applying maths and science to design-and-make activities in ways that leave children and teachers inspired.

“The big breakthrough is getting boys interested in the literacy side of it and girls in the science and the maths side of it and it all coming together rather beautifully,’’ says Scurlock.

Primary Engineer offers primary schools a way to deliver practical maths and science to design technology activities. The class projects are aimed at each year group, linked to the curriculum, and designed to inspire and enthuse. Programmes include teacher training, interactive and paper-based resources, and regional and national competitions. All projects are linked to practising engineers to provide a real-world context to the project.

In the North East, Primary Engineer is working with 88 primary schools. In the region the programme is supported by the South Shields based Ford group of companies which works with Westoe Crown Primary School in South Shields on the design and manufacture of mobile vehicles.

“We help the young people in their endeavours with advice, support and explanation and it works very well,’’ says chairman Geoff Ford.

“Primary Engineer are very supportive of us in the North East. We got onto this programme fairly late, only in about the last two years but it really is picking up momentum and I believe the North East is one of the more vibrant areas in terms of commitment by employers and by primary schools. It really does seem to be working.

“Primary Engineer have just announced a new programme called Early Years Engineer, working with kids aged three and four.’’ He jokes: “I’ve always said you can’t speak to these young people at too early an age but that’s pushing it a bit.’’

Early Years Engineer offers courses for Reception and Year 1 teachers. “The amount of excitement from teachers who want to take engineering into reception classes and pre-reception has been extraordinary,’’ says Scurlock.

Apart from Ford, Primary Engineer works with some 14 companies in the North East including Nissan, Siemens, Quick Hydraulics and Katmex, and EEF is a big supporter.

Primary Engineering 02

Primary Engineer courses focus on the application of practical mathematics and science. The courses are delivered to primary teachers who may be looking for fresh and exciting ways to support the delivery of design technology projects.

Primary Engineer runs training courses to give teachers the practical skills needed to deliver the Primary Engineer project in the classroom. The one-day courses are largely hands-on and are supported by engineers, usually in an engineering company, and several courses have been done in Nissan and Siemens.

“They start to think about engineering as part of the curriculum and then they get to see what real engineering looks like. It’s that whole perception change for them that’s so important,’’ says Scurlock.

As well as training, teachers are also provided with resources to take back to the classroom. The resources include: site licensed software; interactive resources (compatible with Promethean and Smart boards); printed books; and access to Primary Engineer’s virtual learning environment.

The programme offers primary and secondary schools the opportunity to work together, building links to develop the skills of pupils and to develop their teaching staff. Secondary teachers can cascade the training to primary colleagues as part of their primary liaison programme.

Primary Engineer also runs annual challenge events for schools and then holds celebration events enabling them to come together and compete against one another with the car models they have worked on in the classroom. This year, it will be hosting a number of county and regional finals all over the UK.

Primary Engineer’s Leaders Award for STEM is open to all students aged between 5 and 19. This involves children receiving child-friendly CVs from engineers and then interviewing them about their jobs and writing a report.

It is aimed at increasing young people’s awareness of the breadth of opportunities open to them within the STEM subjects, to develop literacy and communication skills and to give the students a chance to speak directly with professionals from different fields in STEM.

Last year, in the House of Lords, the organisation also launched the Institution of Primary Engineers and the Institution of Secondary Engineers. “They’re going to be extraordinary, they are effectively engineering institutions for children,’’ says Scurlock.

Primary Engineer plans to stage an event in the North East this year with Professor John Perkins, chief scientific advisor at the Department for Business who wrote a report on Engineering Skills.

With its rich engineering heritage, the North East has proved highly receptive to Primary Engineer. Scurlock says: “We are looking forward to working with more schools in the North East. The support of the industries up there for the children is just extraordinary.’’