STEM show and tell inspires primary school pupils

Nicola Schofield and Deborah Hastings from Merton Park primary school in south-west London explain how an opportunity to interact online with real-life engineers has got their pupils excited about engineering 

Engaging curiosity in children is a core value for Merton Park Primary School. We encourage children to develop good questions and to think critically about responses so that they can engage with and improve the world when they’re older.

Connecting with engineers is one rewarding way that we do this. This fortnight our years 3 & 4 (aged 7- 9) are benefiting from reading about and chatting with engineers online in I’m an Engineer, Get me out of here.

primary school
Merton Park pupils chatting to engineers online

A couple of months ago a Twitter Q&A with structural engineer Roma Agrawal led to a discussion about the different fields of engineering. The children explored these fields and as a school we decided to join the Health Zone . They’ve been finding out about intelligent artificial limbs prompting critical discussions across school and in the staff room.

As educationalists, we have been amazed by the questions and critical thinking of the students. They really took on board what the engineers said in their online interviews and used this for starter questions. They also asked some good open questions, but it also highlighted some areas for improvement in developing questioning techniques.

Through chatting with the six diverse engineers involved, the children now understand more about engineering. Three said they had no idea what an engineer was until this activity and several said they had no idea how many different jobs came under the umbrella of engineering. The girls loved the fact there were equal men and women on the panel of engineers.

We have been so impressed how, even at the age of 7 and 8, they have taken it all on board and understood it. They have really enjoyed it and can’t wait to vote more next week. I think they will be crazy by Friday waiting for the result! The ensuing class discussions have been so interesting and led to lots of further research and critical thinking.

It is rare, especially in primary schools, for teachers to get an opportunity to network with professionals from other areas and this wider exposure enables us to further support the children

This exposure to the real-life work of engineers has been aspirational for children’s career choices later in life. Through participation in the project and subsequent networking via Twitter, members of staff have also met many young engineers which has raised our own awareness of the content of the subject and enabled us to develop professionally. It is rare, especially in primary schools, for teachers to get an opportunity to network with professionals from other areas and this wider exposure enables us to further support the children – it gives us the knowledge and confidence to answer the children’s questions and it also widens our network of experts for problems we can’t solve ourselves.

primary school
Engineers from HSSMI introduced the children to augmented reality technology

Being online gives the I’m an Engineer initiative some advantages, such as connecting with six engineers from all over the country, and giving all our students – including the shyer ones – a voice. Howeve, it goes further. Several engineers we have met through the project over the years have become extended friends of the school. They have visited us and invited the students to their places of work. Engineers from HSSMI came to school and brought augmented reality projects for the children to experience and we went back to their offices for a day of activities including an introduction to university life from Loughborough University – children were fascinated!

Similarly, a sound & light engineer came to visit school for a morning. We have also welcomed a local firm of structural engineers into school for a day’s surveying work of the premises and grounds. We are looking forward to welcoming 3 more young engineers to school this term. We could never have envisioned the impact that a project such as this (particularly with extended relationships) would have on children of this age. It has changed the classroom conversation!

Few engineering projects seem to be developed for primary-aged children but our experience has been overwhelmingly positive and lasting. Some of the children’s comments:

“I can’t believe a real engineer wanted to answer my questions.”

“They are doing such cool stuff with Lego, it’s amazing.”

“Their jobs sound so interesting.”

“Do you need to go to university to be an engineer?”

An additional and unexpected benefit has been a unique opportunity for staff to observe children live-chatting and to discuss the potential online safeguarding issues that have arisen. Live-chatting online in a safe and moderated environment has given us the opportunity to discuss e-safety and netiquette in a meaningful and contextual way.

What has particularly struck us about the “young” engineers we have met is not just how smart and engaged they were, but how much they all give back to the community – being school ambassadors or helping other charities. They also managed to engage with our young children at an age-appropriate level, for which we are very grateful. They are a credit to the profession and aspirational to young children.

This article was written by Nicola Schofield and Deborah Hastings, Computer Technician and Year 3 teacher respectively at Merton Park Primary School in SW London.

Merton Park Primary School is currently taking part in I’m an Engineer, Get me out of here, an online STEM engagement project that connects school students and engineers. This week members of the public can join in at the Future Transport Zone.

Free to UK and Ireland schools the non-profit activity is funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Wellcome Trust for the 2017/18 school year.