Preserving student STEM engagement throughout K – 12.

Preserving student STEM engagement throughout K – 12.

Preserving student STEM engagement throughout K – 12.

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An article written for the Science Teachers Association of NSW

Here’s a simple experiment to run with your students. Give him or her a scrap piece of paper and a pen and ask your students to draw and label a working scientist. No time limits, no prompts, no right or wrong answers, just simply some space on a page for your students to project their thoughts. Read no further please, go and try this experiment and then come back to me…

Well, how did your class go? What were the characteristics of our scientist? Was the scientist male or female? Was the scientist old or young? Was he or she wearing a lab coat? Were there bubbling potions or something blowing up in the background? Did the scientist have crazy hair and a mega-lo-maniac grin? Or simply… was there an unrealistic representation of what actually occurs in the real world?

I ran this same exercise with a class of soon-to-be science teachers recently.
The university students came from a variety of educational, cultural and industrial backgrounds so you would expect all sorts of different responses. Not to be. Most students provided very similar drawings; usually a wild-haired old male scientist with glasses in a lab coat mixing coloured chemicals at a bench (explosion clearly imminent if not already happening). This same exercise was put to my pre-service teaching class at Macquarie University 13 years ago before commencing school placements and it had the same results then too.

  • mad scientist
  • Classic depiction of a mad scientist.

So, did your students conform to the average results found in our class? If so, what could that mean?
To be honest, it depends on your point of view. Some people would not be concerned at all. Other people suggest that the exploitation of the ‘mad scientist’ image in the media has influenced people’s perceptions of science, for example within children’s TV shows. You could take a cynical view and note that marketing has jumped on the science bandwagon to sell products; just look at how personal care products are sold. Personally I particularly am fond of the 1950’s B-grade horror movie scientist! All of the aforementioned scenarios require someone, often male, wearing a lab coat running visually appealing experiments. Whilst I have no problem with the lab coat from a safety point of view, I do have some concerns as to why this image comes to children’s minds when many scientists have nothing to do with lab coats, e.g. marine biologists, geologists, astronomers etc. Additionally why do the scientists have to be male? Importantly, why is he crazy or ‘mad’?

A study by Scherz & Oren (2005) found by questionnaire that year 8 and 9 school student’s impressions of the characteristics of a scientist were consistently superficial, unreal, sometimes ignorant or outright incorrect. This does raise the question of what a child’s preconception of a science classroom might be prior to arriving at high school. Does he or she expect a mad scientist making lots of slime and exploding things in class? It seems like this is an absurd question to ask, yet speak with a few children who have newly entered year 7 and you might find that this might be exactly what they are hoping for.

As a science communicator for Fizzics Education, my role is to fill this gap between the media and the classroom, to run highly visual and interactive experiments within schools themselves so that teachers can concentrate on delivering further lesson content with their own resources. Because we visit the entire K to 12 learning spectrum we can quickly get a snapshot of the disparity between primary and high school classes; we might see excited students in a Year 7 science classroom and then see students at the same school in Year 9 utterly bored despite a teacher’s best efforts. Yet if you visit the primary schools in the surrounding district you’ll find students in Year 6 very eager to try science, stating that they “can’t wait to get to high school”… so why do some of these student’s lose interest when they finally get to that high school?

Children see awesome experiments performed on TV and expect the same from their school.
The students want highly engaging materials and several ‘wow’ experiments just to keep their attention. They want to be entertained. The problem is that if the science is just presented as a series of ‘tricks’ with observed results students will naturally expect by extrapolation that the ‘tricks’ will only get bigger and better as they move through high school. This occurrence is troubling and an all too familiar scenario with students only wanting to see a ‘cool trick’ and in doing so the student limit’s his or her understanding of the subject by not being sufficiently challenged (Shepardson et al, 2006). The reality is that whilst a great science teacher will weave as many ‘cool’ experiments into their lessons as possible, the primary aim of the science teaching is to present science content from the syllabus in an accessible way and within the school’s budget. Specifically, the hands-on experiments given to students should present an opportunity for experimentation with variables under fair test conditions… a primary point of the scientific method.

In a perfect situation a teacher might perform a fantastic demonstration occasionally but still he/she recognises that students still need to do their own experiments, control the variables, write scientific reports, know the reason why they did the experiment and critically observe their findings. This is a task which can be unfamiliar to a student used to passive observation only. If a student is running an experiment, they need to know why they are doing it, how to safely perform it and have skills to interpret the fair-tested results otherwise little meaningful learning is likely to occur (Hart et al, 2000).

Student’s expectations matter a great deal when it comes to engagement within a lesson.
This presents a problem; how can we as educators continually engage students in science if the reality does not always meet their expectations? My argument would be to not make the difference between primary and high school that different in the first place. All that is needed is the educator to make the science content relevant, interactive and not always a teacher demonstration. Start teaching science as early as possible and present the scientific method from the moment the first experiment in kindergarten is presented. Given a scaffold to work from children can understand the role of controlling variables and making things fair from quite a young age. For example, if you ask a young child to work out the dissolving rate of sugar in water they might not know where to start. However if you pose the same question with prompting suggestions on controlling heat, crystal size, water volume and spoon stirring the child may well come up with some great results and be able to explain why each variable was controlled. Once the experiment has been completed, get them to write, draw or at least discuss what occurred and why. This can be done with mainstream Stage 1 students, let alone the gifted child in later years. In fact, early introduction of scientific literacy activities in kindergarten children have been shown to not only increase understanding in science but can remove the gender gap in regards to children appreciating science itself (Patrick et al, 2008). This places science teachers in a better position to get going with those excited Year 7’s in later years!

Importantly student experiment findings should be related to real world experiences, ensuring that the newly learnt concept is not left in isolation to simply be forgotten or perceived as not relevant. Relevance in turn inevitably leads to greater student engagement, thereby alleviating the need for elaborate ‘tricks’ to keep student attention. The ideal situation would be to present a student with a set of materials and a hypothesis and let them decide on the best course of action to get some results. Some of the best classes we have run have been based on a question a student has posed during a lesson and we have simply just ‘run with it’, gathering the materials we thought might be useful to experiment with and then comparing the experimental results with online research afterwards. This is active learning and is a model of true scientific enquiry, whereby complex questioning based on student interests are encouraged and acted upon (Roth, 1993).

Students encouraged to explore deeper questions are generally sustained for much longer than those presented with simple rote learning scenarios or the cheap thrills of a prearranged science trick (Marbach-Ad & Sokolove, 2000). Hart et al (2000) notes that even running experiments where students are not expected to understand the inherent science content has value if the experiment is designed so that students can understand how scientists establish facts.

Science teaching is multi-faceted; there is no one way to run a science lesson (Buxton, 2000). Of course, if you have the resources and the time by all means demonstrate that cool experiment you saw on TV; just make sure that this doesn’t become the expected scenario in every lesson. Over time if the primary student becomes accustomed to writing reports and evaluating findings they will find the transition to the high school science laboratory as just an extension of their primary studies, rather than a foreign experience. If done correctly, retention rates in the science disciplines for years 11 and 12 can only benefit.


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