The importance of collaboration and a whole curriculum approach to STEM

Ahead of last week’s launch in Paisley of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK ( the free learning programme designed to inspire young people, aged 4 to 19, with its creative projects showcasing collaborations across science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM)), we were delighted to sit down with Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon (left), founder of education innovator Stemettes, an award-winning social enterprise working to inspire and support young women and non-binary people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths careers. In a wide-ranging interview we discussed the launch of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK and the role Stemettes played in the creation of About Us resources (part of the UNBOXED Learning Programme), the important role the arts play in STEM, how schools can help foster collaboration and sharing skills in the classroom, and most importantly, how to make technology fun and engaging for all our young people.

Can you firstly tell us a bit more about About Us and the event itself?

It’s one of the 10 UNBOXED projects, a celebration of STEAM and of creativity across the UK. We’re bringing poetry and STEM together and showing how they complement each other. It just takes a bit of imagination (and some fantastic technical know-how) to bring these different disciplines together.

In its simplest terms it’s a light show, part of a collaboration between Stemettes, 59 Productions (who create productions like this), and The Poetry Society, who work on poetry and the promotion of poetry. It aims to engage with young people, and engage them with STEM and STEAM. The light show takes you on a 30 million year journey from The Big Bang to us here in Paisley, looking at civilization, what happens with cells and early human life and how we’ve ended up here, looking up at Paisley Abbey and how we all are connected to the universe. Technically we’re all made of star stuff, so that that’s what the whole event is about, it’s a celebration of Paisley and its place in the universe.

We’ve done a lot of work in the community and in local schools in the last couple of months, working through poetry workshops, working through STEM and coding workshops, and so what the children have created is a big part of the light show as well. We’re hearing their poetry and seeing it, we’re seeing the avatars that they’ve created in elements of their animations.

Awe was the key word that we had in mind when we were pulling this together, so that’s in essence what the show is about – awe and bright lights and a celebration of Paisley.

Can you elaborate on the STEAM acronym for those maybe unfamiliar with it?

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts (and design), and maths – it represents a combination of all those disciplines. You can’t do STEM without art and design, without that creativity and expression. If you look at something like product design, it’s easy to see that the most impactful have that appreciation for the arts. All of them have leant into some of the skill sets that we have in the arts. Indeed, you’re much more likely to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences if you’ve engaged with the arts during your upbringing, which runs counter to the image people maybe have of scientists, that the best scientists have only ever done science and only ever do science. In fact, being able to recognise those softer artistic skill sets, combine them through collaboration and communication, that’s really where we solve problems properly.

So that’s the heart of STEAM and of course this About Us project and the whole of the UNBOXED Learning Programme.

Has asking schools to combine very different disciplines like this been a challenge?

When the proposition is explained clearly, and the benefits of this sort of cross-curricular work are articulated in a way that makes sense for schools, then we find buy-in comes pretty quickly. The resources that we’ve put together as part of this allow teachers to see for themselves how it can work in the classroom and benefit their pupils. Obviously, schools have been through a really tough time during the pandemic, and we’re now approaching exam season and all the stresses and demands that come with that, but fundamentally we’re aiming to build something here for the longer term and we really do hope, through the excitement of events like the light show, that we will inspire the younger generation to take their first steps on this great journey.

You are very passionate about this, where does your inspiration come from?

Creativity inspires me, curiosity about how things work and how the things we build create a legacy long after we’re gone. I took a VCR apart when I was younger, trying to understand how the cassette went into the machine, how the mechanism played the tape – basically breaking things down to understand how they fit together and how, once you understand that, you can solve problems with the knowledge you’ve gained.

Of course, once you talk about solving problems, then you can start working for the greater good – and that inspires me as well, the idea that things don’t always have to be harder, faster, stronger, bigger or whatever as an end in itself, rather that those attributes are really just a means to an end, and that the goal is using all of the resources at our disposal to make life better for all of us.

I’d also like to see us drawing on a much more diverse pool of talent than we do currently, and I’m inspired to realise that goal, because the more diverse the pool, the more diverse the voices we hear and the better the things we create will be.

How do you show children that STEAM is fun and not just “boring” technology?

Children like to play. If you give them the right environment to play and to create, who doesn’t want to express themselves?

Recently we were running a hack on Healthcare and getting young children to build apps. They loved it – I’m thinking of two little girls who spent the weekend building a house app because they had included talking fruit in their app and to them it was the most hilarious thing they’d ever seen. It’s one of those things where you don’t have to force them because they’ve made something, they’ve explored, they’ve played with the technology.

A couple of years ago we did a big data hack using Twitter and it was so interesting to see what interested the young people we had at the hack. One of them was obsessed with Chelsea Football Club and so that was what she dived into, analysing the Twitter feeds of Chelsea players at that point and generating infographics from them. Her little sister was obsessed with Build-a-Bear so she went around and collected some fantastic information on that. There was another girl who wanted to find  out the best member of One Direction.

Everyone has passions. Everyone sees problems that they’re very aware of, and they’re growing up with all of these, and so they’re really, really aware of what needs to be solved. They really care, and so I think it’s being able to show technology in that context, and allow people to get creative.

What age range are you targeting with the resources you mention?

Basically from 4 to 19, the gamut of primary and secondary education.

Knowing what you know about STEM in schools, do you think there’s enough collaboration between these disciplines in mainstream education, or do you think that there could be more focus on collaborating and skill sharing?

There could always be more. Collaboration is one of those things where the more you do, the more you learn, the better you get, so I think there’s definitely more that could be done. I do actually think it’s an interesting one. Teachers are between a rock and a hard place I think on this, because exams are not (for the most part) collaborative. Most SLTs have particular KPIs and metrics they look at to gauge how well their schools are doing, but I think with a bit of imagination these metrics can actually be made to work to provide a more collaborative setting in schools – for example, how can school leaders reward time that’s spent in collaboration? How can they reward this future skills work by teachers which is happening in their schools? Obviously, it does require investment, experimentation, and a little bit of thinking outside the box to give teachers agency to be able to try new things.

I think teachers do want to do this, but at the moment there’s a sense that there’s not enough positive reinforcement and support for those teachers when they do go a little bit outside the box, so we do certainly need more support and buy-in from SLTs to help build these core skills of collaboration – don’t forget, these skills are going to help close up the gaps that have been left by the pandemic and really address many of the issues around wellbeing and lost learning which we’re hearing so much about now.

UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK – funded by all four governments of the UK – is the biggest, most ambitious creative programme ever presented on these shores. The programme offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for pupils aged 4-19, to become immersed in science, technology, engineering, the arts and maths (STEAM), through a range of remarkable projects across the UK and FREE online learning experiences. Explore the free resources today https://unboxed2022.uk/learning-programme

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