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Running a STEM Club

I first started running a STEM club at my local primary school twelve years ago when my children were young. In the UK, as in many other countries, there is a shortage of young people going into careers in science and engineering. I come from a family of engineers, so when I was little most of the excitement and activity in our house took place in the garage, designing, making and fixing things. My aim was to re-create that experience for my children and their peers, getting the children excited about STEM whilst teaching them hands-on and trouble-shooting skills which would come in useful later.

So, every week (for the next four years) I had to come up with a new project for the children to complete. It had to take an hour and it had to cost virtually nothing because we had no budget. They had to make one model each or there was upset over who got to take it home. And it of course had to be very engaging.

I still run this club although my children have long since moved on, one to study engineering and the other physics – I like to think their early experience had some influence over their choices. I have also helped a number of other people to set up STEM clubs, and have trained a lot of teachers and STEM ambassadors to run activities in school.

Some hints and tips

Here are some of the things I have discovered over the years:

  1. For a primary school club, it is helpful to keep numbers low.
  2. It is good if children sign up for a term so you get continuity, and they can develop their skills.
  3. If you have any problems getting the numbers, you could show them some of the things they will be making in assembly. You will probably be over-subscribed in no time.
  4. It is useful to have helpers. Several of the children’s parents or grandparents have come along to help. If they have a STEM background, they are particularly useful. I also invite STEM ambassadors from our local engineering company to come and lend a hand; they can also act as role models and tell the children about their career in STEM.
  5. Plan activities several weeks in advance, or even for the whole term, so you have more time to collect materials.
  6. Local online groups are good places to source materials such as old CDs, bottle lids etc. for upcycling into models. Also putting out a request in the school newsletter can pay dividends – but try to request fairly small items which can be stored easily in case you get inundated.

Getting started

Start with fun, simple projects that work and get the kids buzzing and then, having built some skills, move on to slightly harder projects. It is good to complete a new project every week, at least initially, so they have something to take home. An advantage of making simple models which the children can take home is that they can enthuse their family and friends too. Here are a few straightforward models to start with – balloon hovercraft, teddy zip wire, balloon buggy and CD racer.

Try to select projects where the materials can be sourced easily, and where possible using recycled materials. Test the projects first yourself to check that they work and can be done easily by the children in the time available.

As the children develop their skills and confidence over time, they can be encouraged to develop their own ideas. Here are some activities which give them more in the way of free reign: marble maze, ten second marble run challenge, Ooglies, lolly stick bridge challenge.

Appealing to girls and boys

Initially my club started out with mostly boys and a few girls, but over the years the numbers started to equalise, and last year for the first time we actually had more girls than boys. I didn’t consciously set out to do this, but as a woman engineer my choice of projects and approach to making them look appealing as well as work properly seems to have fairly universal appeal.

Toy companies have a reputation for deliberately polarising the different sexes by promoting ‘nurturing’ type toys for girls and STEM type toys for boys. This is presumably one of the reasons why fewer girls end up in STEM careers – they have had less practice and experience and received a clear message that STEM is ‘not for girls’. Many other careers which were previously male dominated such as medicine and law now attract more women than men.

Not everyone likes to compete – the approach of some STEM clubs to make everything a competition can be off-putting, particularly to girls who may be less confident when it comes to STEM. Actual STEM careers require teamwork and co-operation rather than competition! However, you could include the occasional competition to add variety, and you can always make competing optional.

Levelling the playing field

A STEM club is an opportunity for ‘kinaesthetic learning’, which is learning by doing as opposed to learning by listening, watching and reading. Most people learn best this way, but unfortunately a lot of learning at school involves more in the way of listening, watching and reading than actually doing. Kinaesthetic learning can help level the playing field for those who have difficulty with these more ‘traditional’ learning methods and give them a chance to shine. When running STEM activities in school I often have teachers point out a child who does not normally get on well at school and comment on how engaged they are.  

One day I was really surprised to receive an email from a parent saying ‘Thank you so much for running the club. My son loves it – his balloon car has been whizzing round our kitchen floor since Wednesday. It is so nice for a little boy who finds school so difficult to come to something he really enjoys!’ The reason I was surprised was because the child in question was one of my best and most enthusiastic club members who had a real feel for how to get things to work. I was puzzled as to why he would find school difficult. He was later diagnosed as dyslexic and given extra help.

I have also heard from a number of SEN schools who enjoy running my STEM projects. They told me that their pupils really relate to the activities because they can immediately see the purpose of what they are doing.

Running a STEM club is different from running STEM activities during curriculum time. The children are there through choice (usually!) and are not expecting formal learning to take place. Try and avoid any reading or writing if possible and stick to giving verbal instructions. It is useful to bring along a working example of what the pupils are trying to make so that they know what to aim at. This also demonstrates that the project can be successfully completed.

Links to science topics

However, just because the children aren’t being formally taught doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. They will be learning loads. It is possible to select projects which will reinforce topics they have been learning in class, particularly in science. Here are some projects which directly link to science topics: magnetic compass (magnetism), egg parachute (air resistance), coin battery (electricity), Cartesian diver (materials and forces) and periscopes (light).

I often ask my helpers to show the children the model and explain the science behind it at the start of the session – it is usually too hectic to do this at the end as children will be busy finishing, testing or improving their makes. I do check with the helpers first before putting them on the spot and brief them if required!

Tools

It is useful to have a rummage in the school cupboard to find out what tools are available, as this may affect your choice of projects. Rulers, pencils, felt tip pens and scissors are normally available in the classroom.

Cool melt glue guns are really useful for joining things together. Check they are in working order, you can find them when you need them and there are enough glue sticks. You can use old cereal boxes to protect the tables from glue. I recommend having an adult supervising the gluing station to stop the children burning themselves. The children mustn’t use hot melt glue guns as they can give really nasty blisters. If there aren’t any glue guns then double-sided foam tape can be used for most activities instead. Or perhaps some budget can be found to invest in cool melt glue guns – maybe the PTA could be in a position to help.

Often school cupboards contain other tools such as saws, bench hooks, vices and drills which open up opportunities for more woodworking type projects as well.

Electrical projects

Once my first club had been running for over a year, I was struggling to come up with new, exciting projects which fitted within the (non-existent) budget and would keep them challenged. One of the parents came up with an idea – the children could each purchase a kit of electrical parts for about £5, and then we could keep re-using the parts every week to create a different model.

After much trial and error, I managed to come up with a kit of parts which was versatile enough to make many different models. Each of the children purchased one, and off we went! Here are some of the things we made: steady hand game, hand held fan, vibrating brush monster, chair-o-plane and fan boat.

We did come across a few challenges. One was that it was extremely easy to short-circuit the batteries. If the battery is accidentally connected back to itself without going via a motor, lamp, buzzer etc then there is not enough resistance to slow the current down and the battery discharges rapidly. If using alkaline or re-chargeable batteries then this often leads to melting the battery boxes. I even managed it myself when building prototypes – I still have a small hole in my carpet to remind me!

I found that if we stuck to using only zinc batteries then they would discharge much more slowly in the event of a short circuit, so although the batteries would get warm and stop working, they wouldn’t melt, give off smoke or burn the children’s fingers. Zinc batteries are cheap and readily available from discount stores.

Another problem was getting the children to bring their models back in every week to turn into something new. I remember one very unhappy child – she had taken her model torch away for the weekend to show her granny, accidentally left it in the car and her dad had then driven up to Scotland for work, along with the model! Another child ended up in floods of tears when he was asked to dismantle his vibrating brush monster to make the following week’s project.

Funding

Getting parents to pay a small charge is a useful way to get commitment and to provide yourself with some budget to provide more in the way of materials, so that you don’t have to dismantle all the models for re-use. For those who can’t afford a small charge there is sometimes some money available in the school budget to help out.

Another option is to apply for outside funding. Sometimes local engineering companies are willing to provide some sponsorship for a club (you can acknowledge their generosity in the school newsletter), and they may also provide some STEM ambassadors to help out. There are a few funds aimed at schools and clubs you can apply to, for example from the Institute of Physics. I find funds offering smaller amounts easier to get, as you are not up against professional applicants.

The PTA may be able to help out with a specific purchase, particularly one which also benefits the wider school such as glue guns or Crumble controllers to make programmable models. Getting additional funding certainly gave us scope to do some more expensive projects which we couldn’t have done otherwise. Here are some computer-controlled models we completed: lighthouse, coloured spinner, traffic lights, nightlight, robotic vehicle.

Where to find the projects

When I started my first club, although we officially only had 20 children signed up, they kept bringing their friends along as well to ‘help’. This meant that I was always running out of materials for the children to make their models.

So, we put a stop to extra ‘helpers’ and started a waiting list. But before long, the waiting list was bigger than the club itself. As the children in the club had no intention of leaving, this meant that the children on the waiting list would never actually get to come along. We briefly tried running two lots of children on alternate weeks, but this was a disaster as all the children ended up coming on both weeks!

I decided I would write a book of instructions on how to make the models, so that the children who couldn’t attend the club could make the models themselves at home. I based it on a recipe book, with a list of what you need, then step-by-step illustrated instructions, and finally I put a brief explanation of the science behind the project. It proved so popular that I ended up writing three more books. Here they are – they are very good value and you can get them from my website www.technologyforfun.co.uk

I also created three sets of STEM activity cards for TTS which include teacher notes, recommendations for sourcing materials and tools, suggestions for risk assessments, STEM learning objectives, what you need and what you do (with illustrations) and STEM explanations. Here they are in order of increasing difficulty:

Here are the links to them on the TTS website:

https://www.tts-group.co.uk/stem-activity-cards—ks1%2Flks2-/SC10130.html

https://www.tts-group.co.uk/stem-activity-cards—ks2/1015904.html

https://www.tts-group.co.uk/ks2-stem-challenge-cards/1015905.html

Here is an extract from a review of the cards taken from Primary Science Magazine:

My STEM club pupils couldn’t wait to get into these! The packs contain a great variety of activities, with a range of challenge from density towers to fuse bead clocks and cork gymnasts. I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the activities worked and was delighted to find that most of the resources I needed could easily be found around the school or purchased at a low cost.

To conclude

Running a STEM club is a very rewarding experience for everyone concerned. However, it is also hard work, so use tried and tested projects wherever possible, and get plenty of help.

Here is some feedback I received about my first club:

Teacher: This is an incredibly popular club. The children not only learn skills such as construction, coding and wiring/electronics, but they are also challenged in terms of problem solving and finding solutions to unfamiliar problems. It’s great they get to do activities which would be very difficult in a classroom.

STEM ambassador: It’s an amazing opportunity for the children to learn. I wish something similar was available when I was younger! The children love it.

6th form helper: I think technology club is a fantastic opportunity for children to engage with STEM at an early age; the chance for children to have fun with engineering and computing is unique and enjoyable for them.

Child: I like technology club because it’s fun and you can be creative. I have learnt how to program my Crumble. I really enjoy it.

Parent: Charlie has been very enthusiastic when he’s come home from tech club. He hasn’t stopped talking about it.

With thanks to Caroline Alliston for the content included in this blog.

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