In UK primary schools there are very few teachers who have any scientific qualifications above GCSE level. Many also report that they struggle with science subject knowledge and that this causes them to feel less confident about teaching science. Unfortunately we know that these aspects can have a negative impact on children’s learning and attitudes to science.
Our work, supported by a grant from the Engineer’s Professors Council and a UWE Spur 6 grant, aimed to address this by using engineering as an alternative approach to teaching science. UWE trainee primary school teachers (ITE students) were paired with UWE undergraduate engineering students working together within a knowledge exchange framework to design and deliver engineering activities to local primary school children. The pairs of students worked together to challenge children to design and make solutions to ‘real-life’ problems such as designing and building a machine to clear up after a class party; a floating device to enable you to take your phone swimming with you and a device to carry secret messages to a friend.
Research findings have shown that rather than de-skilling the pre-service teachers, pairing them with an ‘expert’ engineering student appeared to be a vital contributor to the positive outcomes of the project. Working as paired peers significantly increased the trainee teacher’s confidence in both engineering and science subject knowledge as well as their confidence in their ability to teach these subjects well which can directly contribute to positive outcomes for children. The engineers reported that they were more likely to take part in public engagement activities in the future as a result of participation in the project.
Over 800 local primary school children have also had the opportunity to become engineers for the day at our ‘Children as Engineers’ conferences run jointly by the Departments of Engineering and Education and Childhood. For the children who have participated in the project using an engineering approach to teaching and learning science has supported their scientific understanding, as well as helping them to engage with the engineering design process. The children were more positive about science, and future career plans in science and engineering, and they demonstrated a much greater and more accurate awareness about engineers and engineering.
As a result of this work a toolkit for training teachers and engineers to jointly teach science through engineering has been developed. This has now been embedded into the undergraduate programmes for ITE and engineering students. This work is being supported by a HEFCE (now Office for Students) grant which will help us to evaluate longer term, sustainable impact. The development of a tool-kit which can be used by other higher education institutions is our long-term goal.
Enabling the students and children to work together challenges children’s preconceptions about engineers and the role that they play, supports engineering students in their public engagement skills and develops the subject knowledge of the trainee teachers. In the words of teachers from the schools involved ‘The engineering project was amazing!! The children gained so much’ ‘the whole school is absolutely buzzing’.
In the words of the students themselves…..
Engineering student participant- “working with the teaching students was sublime. I was amazed at their skills in the classroom.”
ITE student participant- “I really enjoyed the day, it was extremely useful to work with the engineers. I was surprised at how we were able to share ideas so well. I learnt so much.”
ITE student participant- “I was amazed at how doing the practical work revealed so much about the children’s learning and understanding. It has really made me think about the types of lessons I will do in the future.”
Dr Fay Lewis ,Senior Lecturer in Primary Math and Science Education