Keeping students engaged in STEM while schools are shut presents unique challenges. To solve those, Jane Dowden says project-based learning is an idea whose time has come

If things are hard for teachers and schools in this crisis, they are certainly no easier for families acclimatising to home learning. As mentioned in these pages last week, our situation means the disadvantage gap is likely to be worsened, not just by inequality of access to resources, but by inequality of parents’ ability to support too. This means some children will be making more progress than others, but it’s not just that. Entire subjects could fall by the wayside too.

It is natural to want to help with subjects we feel more confident about rather than those we struggle with, and we have known since long before this crisis that maths and sciences present parents with the greatest difficulty. A decade ago, over a third of parents struggled to support their children with maths, and over a quarter with sciences, reporting a sense of embarrassment because of it. Some 60 per cent of 9- to 13-year-olds reported that their parents confused them when they tried to help.

Curriculum reform has only increased the academic demands of these subjects in the interim, and we shouldn’t be surprised to find that this is still the case now that we find ourselves in a situation where all school work is homework. In addition, the fact that a great deal of learning time is spent either staring at a computer screen or at the pages of a textbook only makes it harder to keep motivation up.

Project-based learning is diverse and inclusive by default

As such, it is important to find methods of learning and teaching that are more engaging and more accessible to both students and parents, and project-based learning (PBL) is perfectly suited to the task. It encourages students to identify real-world problems and create solutions, allowing for more hands-on learning as well as helping students sharpen their critical and independent thinking skills. As a home-learning strategy it’s a great leveller, engaging parents and students as equals in an investigation that requires them to develop expertise, rather assuming the presence of an expert to provide guidance and support.

For example, a student (and their parent) might decide to build their own loudspeaker or create an interactive model to explain a scientific phenomenon. This more creative approach prevents STEM being viewed as exclusively academic and instead demonstrates how it is a part of everything we do. It makes the subject more relatable and gives families a greater sense of ownership, boosting and sustaining engagement.

PBL also allows families to bring in other subjects they feel passionate about (or at least are more comfortable with). This generates a sense of pride, as it becomes truly their own achievement rather than a task that has been handed to them. PBL is diverse and inclusive by default.

Perhaps most importantly of all, PBL is fun. Whether making and testing their own ceramic jewellery or investigating how sanitation can help solve global health challenges, students will have taken time to identify and investigate a problem they care about and constructed or communicated their own solutions.

There are plenty of free resources, including our own CREST resources, that can help students and parents kick off their projects. Equally, teachers can encourage families to build their own project from scratch, potentially reducing their planning workload. Either way, it is important to allow young people to take a degree of ownership over their chosen project from the start.

At a time when STEM subjects are increasingly pervading all areas of work and life, we can’t allow our young people to fall behind or to lose interest. We can worry about standardised assessments later. For now, we have an opportunity to use these subjects as a way of bringing families together and keeping them engaged to beat the anxiety of the pandemic and the monotony of self-isolation, and that’s an easy win for everyone.