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Learnings from Life’s School Programme

School student in a Living in Space Education Workshop.
Bethan Ross, Life Science Centre's Audience Research Manager

Bethan Ross

Author

Introduction

The cost of living crisis impacts so many of our audiences, schools included. In a recent article shared by the BBC, teachers noted that the school trip is one area that could be cut in order to make savings.  

As we settle into the new academic year we look at some of the recent evaluation findings of our revamped schools programme, highlighting the impact these trips have on pupils. 

Background 

In 2021, Life conducted a review of its schools’ offer with the aim to better serve the changing needs of teachers. Working with consultants (Annie Hurst and Ben Gammon) and building on the experience from the previous 20 years, the Life team developed a new programme of workshops and interactive story-telling sessions for Key Stage 1 – 4 students.  

The new programme provides unique, hands-on, curriculum-inspired STEM activities, using real equipment, delivered in labs, around a digital sphere and in making studios.  As well as aiming to reinforce the STEM knowledge and theory pupils learn at school, the programme aims to underline the relevance of STEM to pupil’s lives, highlight contemporary links, and broaden the range of roles and careers that pupils consider.  

This new programme launched in November 2021 and was comprehensively evaluated using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methodologies.  

Here are 5 findings for any organisation providing informal STEM experiences. 

1. Don’t underestimate the impact of your front of house team 
No matter how much thought has gone into your school offer, your team is key to its success. This doesn’t just include the people delivering the sessions but also covers receptionists, café staff, the bookings team. They all play a huge part in how teachers and pupils feel about their trip. Small gestures such as greeting school groups on arrival makes the trip feel special, and both teachers and pupils feel welcome. 

2. Curriculum links aren’t everything 

While it’s true that teachers are often looking for activities that support learning in the classroom, your programme shouldn’t be exclusively led by curriculum links. As budgets are stretched the argument for school trips must tick more than the “curriculum link” box.  

Keep in mind the broader experience and what makes visiting your venue unique and worth the trip. For example, at Life, teachers and pupils value the authentic nature and quality of the equipment they can use in workshops that they wouldn’t normally have access to.  

The science centre spaces provide a variety of ways for pupils to engage on their own terms, with peers, as well as unique wow moments such as the Planetarium. Features such as these are just as important as your curriculum links. 

3. The needs and wants of different key stages vary 
The needs and wants of schools change across the key stages, as well depending on the time of year they book. While higher key stages may be looking for a stronger link to the curriculum, it’s still important to ask yourself what your offer is providing that can’t be delivered at school. 

Life’s post-16 offer focuses on the key curriculum-linked practicals that schools aren’t always able to deliver. Our KS3 workshops take aspects of the curriculum that many schools are only able to cover through teacher demonstrations, such as dissections, and provide opportunities for pupils to get hands-on experience. The chance to get hands-on and participate in activities normally reserved to textbooks or demonstrations are hugely valued by pupils. Many older pupils see it as a glimpse of science post school and can help them decide on future study decisions.   

4. The pros and cons of the STEM stereotype 
The stereotypical image of STEM where a scientist mixes different colourful chemicals and wears a lab coat and goggles is a tricky image to shift. With the variety of workshop topics and settings it was interesting to see how this impacted the perception of “real science”. 

Workshops that utilised aspects such as labcoats and labware rated higher on the perception of doing “real science” and had pupils describe themselves as “being scientists”. Not only this but teachers were also observed using reaffirming language, taking pictures and stating how their pupils looked like “proper scientists”. 

This can be incredibly beneficial to pupils’ self confidence in science, however it can work against the aim of broadening what counts as STEM. Workshops that don’t include these stereotypes have to work much harder to achieve the same type of impact. It’s crucial to consistently and explicitly reaffirm that pupils are doing “real science” and using “real scientific equipment” in these workshops. 

5. Don’t just fill your programme with “wow” moments 
One of the aims of the revamped programme was to broaden what counts as STEM and highlight where concepts are relevant in pupils’ day to day lives. While exciting activities and demos provide memorable and talked about moments, and often provide that “authentic” science experience described above, they can be difficult for pupils to relate to their own lives.
 
Many of the revamped workshops also include quieter and more discursive activities with more everyday items. For example, our space workshops include activities where pupils compare several different gloves to work out what materials and properties would be important for an astronaut suit. While lacking in the “wow”, this task often generated much richer conversations with pupils making links to their own lives and experiences. It also inspired some teachers to recreate the activity in their class.   

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