Our dynamic STEM programme is inspiring the next generation of innovative and risk taking female STEM superstars

Posted on 11th May 2023 by Susan Roberts and Harry Barker

Susan Roberts and Harry Barker outline the innovative approach to STEM at Norwich High Prep School.

Girls can be great problem solvers but it doesn’t always come naturally to them. Their innate desire to get it right first time in order to avoid making mistakes can prevent them from being inventive and taking risks based on curiosity or creativity. This is certainly what we discovered when we set problem solving challenges in the past for our pupils at Norwich High Prep School for Girls. They had a tendency to focus on making it look right rather than work well, putting more time and effort into making a rocket with well placed fins, a cone nose and glitter (always an essential!) rather than ensuring it made a successful journey into the air.

Although our girls enjoyed their Science lessons, we decided they needed more opportunities to learn how to solve problems to gain the skills and attributes they so clearly needed. So we introduced STEM lessons into the curriculum and built our own programme of work to help our girls become successful problem solvers but, this was just the beginning.

Using the Engineering Design Process

With our new dedicated STEM lab, we now offer stand-alone STEM lessons in the curriculum from Year 3-6 to develop students’ problem solving skills through the engineering design process.

We started by exploring the different elements of the engineering design process knowing this was the key to unlocking the girls’ ability to find solutions to problems and encourage them to feel comfortable about learning from failure. We decided on a seven stage process: explore, discover, plan, make, test, improve, share.

Qualities for Learning

Once we had the process in place we combined it with our eight Qualities for Learning. We believe these eight characteristics are essential in a good learner and we have attributed each quality to a girl, giving her a name and a story to explain her skill.

When they leave school, our girls will be joining a fast-moving, uncertain world, where skills such as being able to work in a team, see new perspectives and think creatively will be highly valued. This comes through clearly from the research completed by the World Economic Forum but also from the parents who make up our community. In our recent Careers week they shared how, as employers themselves, they will often look for the same Qualities we are teaching our girls over and above basic competency to do the job.

By making these often implicit Qualities much more obvious, particularly through STEM, we can help our girls to take control over their own development and drive their learning forward in preparation for the future.

“STEM is really fun and you can learn lots of new things. We’ve even learnt how to stop an earthquake happening by making stronger buildings. We’ve learnt how to use coding to make new apps. The Qualities girls help you along the way. You always learn something new – it won’t always turn out how you want – you need determination and resilience and to believe in yourself.”

Norwich High Prep School student

Embedding a digital approach to learning

The use of technology has been integrated seamlessly into the STEM programme. With each girl having access to her own school iPad from Year 1, the girls quickly become digitally literate, seeing their device as another tool, much like their pencil case or exercise book. It was important then to ensure technology was at the heart of our STEM programme, so digital learning journal apps help students share the design process for each project. In these journals the girls are able to record video of their catapults firing marshmallows across the classroom, add photographs of their periscopes being used to see over a wall or record themselves talking about the success or not of their water carriers.

As part of the STEM programme the girls are given a block of time to develop their coding skills. With game design, earthquake detectors and mini robots as just some of the topics, their problem solving skills are tested to the limit as they use their logical thinking skills to sequence their instructions and debug their programs.

“I love STEM because it’s fun and you get to create things. I really enjoy coding because it is digital skills and I am really good at them. I like making and inventing things, creating and problem solving. I definitely want to go into coding as a career when I’m older.”

Developing problem solving skills through Food Technology lessons

Food Tech is the final strand of our regular STEM programme. In our purpose-built Food Tech room the girls are taught food preparation, nutrition, budgeting and healthy meal planning. They are increasingly independent in their ability to follow a recipe for themselves and even when making flatbreads and tzatziki, the stages of the engineering design process and the Qualities for Learning are clearly in use.

Special STEM events

One off STEM days throughout the year are used to inspire the girls such as a full scale crime to solve – who had stolen the school dog. DNA extraction, fingerprint analysis, chromatography to distinguish between pens and taking casts of footprints were just some of the activities the girls took part in to eliminate the suspects and discover the criminal on the staff.

One off Qualities Days highlight the values we are trying to instill in the girls. A recent Failure Day saw them taking part in a number of near impossible tasks throughout the day to help the girls shift their mindset about failure from being an end to their learning to being an opportunity to improve and move forward.

During events including British Science Week, our classes can link with the Senior School, this year taking part in experiments using magnetism, dry ice and kazoos. Being part of the GDST also brings additional STEM based experiences which are available to all 25 schools in the Trust and groups of girls have attended a Junior Techathon for Year 5 at Brunel University, a Maths Conference for Year 6 at Oxford University and for British Science Week, the Junior Science Conference at the Royal Institute in London, where they created crashproof cardboard cars and extracted their own DNA. An explosive lecture in the famous Faraday Theatre finished off the day and the girls have not stopped talking about it since.

Sharing our approach to STEM with the local community

Finally, to take our development of STEM beyond our school, we also launched the ‘STEM Squad’, a free after school outreach STEM club for girls aged 6-9 from September 2022. This has seen over 40 families from the local area booking places for their daughters and it has been wonderful to see their confidence and enjoyment of STEM developing over the weeks they took part.

Space to learn

Approaching STEM via the engineering design process has given our pupils space to learn and encouraged them to see the process as important, valuing the exploring and problem solving, not just trying to get the ‘right answer’. They have begun to see that mistakes are part of the learning and to let go of some of their apprehension around trying new things. They have developed their ability to work collaboratively and it has been wonderful to see them beginning to notice and value the different skills they each bring to the group.

The way we teach STEM is interrelated with other areas of the curriculum – solving problems when making a super skyscraper or catapult also teaches the students about the different stages of problem solving in maths when they need to check their answer, improve and share – and in many other subjects. This prepares the girls by giving them the key transferable skills to be able to apply their understanding in later life.

Influencing more girls to see STEM as part of their future careers

Immersing students in STEM activities from a young age bypasses harmful societal or educational stereotypes that can eventually lead to a lack of female representation in STEM careers. By the time girls reach the Senior School, they feel empowered to continue with STEM subjects with confidence, rather than feeling like they are encountering them for the first time or they are in the minority.

It is fantastic to see how popular STEM is with our students, and to hear so many of them talking about pursuing a career in STEM – especially coding, in the future. In fact, in a show of hands in a recent assembly during National Careers Week, 70% of students said they wanted to pursue a STEM career.

Most Dynamic STEM Programme Award Finalists

We were delighted to learn in May that we had been shortlisted as Finalists in the Most Dynamic STEM Programme category at the 2023 Muddy Stilettos Schools Awards for our Prep school design engineering process approach to STEM lessons. This success is testament to the hard work from the whole Prep School team, and is a fantastic accolade which we are very proud to have received.