The role of the ‘M’ in STEM

Written by: Michael Anderson | Published:
Image: iStock

There are significant overlaps across the new STEM curricula, especially between science and maths. Michael Anderson discusses what this means for schools and the renewed importance of cross-curricular learning

Mathematical skills are key to excelling in every STEM subject, but mathematics teachers sometimes don’t identify as teaching a STEM subject. Why?

During my teaching career I can think of no time, hand on heart, where I have thought of myself as a STEM teacher.

I’m a maths teacher – and unless you count the two-week primary placement during my teacher training – I’m a secondary maths teacher at that. Ask some of my maths teacher colleagues, and they will go further: “I only teach key stage 4 maths,” or “Me? I’m actually a statistician/a ‘pure’ maths teacher/a mechanics specialist.”

Others – despite teaching maths – will claim not to be mathematicians at all, let alone a fully fledged teacher of STEM. It is the same with computing, design and technology and science teachers (where the lines that separate biologists, chemists and physicists are more firmly entrenched). This segregation is an understandable result of partitioning the curriculum into individual areas.

The problem of embedding cross-curricular learning is as old as the national curriculum itself. There have been days-if not-weeks in my teaching when I haven’t spoken to anyone outside my department. Yet it is these cross-curricular skills that are exactly what are required in the workplace.

In 2015, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills stated that STEM skills “are critical to UK competitiveness but also subject to significant shortages”. More recently, the Science and Technology Select Committee reported that in order to address the STEM skills gap the “school curriculum must be kept relevant for students’ STEM skills needs as they enter a continually evolving workplace”.

The committee’s report suggests that the curriculum should “reflect not just what employers need but also the evidence on what initiatives are most effective in increasing and sustaining young people’s interest”.

But what are STEM skills?

Ask two teachers for a definition and I doubt they’d agree. As a maths teacher, I’d say my subject falls under the STEM umbrella – but that doesn’t necessarily help me teach it. STEM skills live in the area between science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They are there when programming computers to find prime numbers, when using mathematical models to predict the behaviour of micro-organisms, or when putting Tim Peake on the International Space Station.

It might be a little out of my comfort zone, but STEM skills are taking all of the reasoning and problem-solving in the maths curriculum and using it – out there in the real world – to actually solve problems.

So, how can I, as a classroom teacher, prepare my students for this – and the rewarding career paths STEM can offer?

My starting point has – and always will be – good teaching. My role is to make studying mathematics an engaging, enjoyable, rewarding and interesting experience; to convey the beauty and practicality of the subject, and hope that my enthusiasm is infectious.

With the double weighting mathematics now enjoys at GCSE, and consistent exam result pressures, I’ve always thought that by working towards helping my students get the best grades possible I’ve been helping their future career. Gaining university offers, opening the doors through that “good GCSE pass” or learning the basic mathematics needed to function in the world.

Despite this (or possibly because of it), I’m afraid to say that the clichéd words “when will I ever need this?” have still passed my students’ lips.

My attempts to make each maths lesson as relevant as possible to the “real-world” usually have mixed success – there are only so many times two trains can set off towards each other at differing speeds, or a man props his a ladder against a wall or a goat is tethered to a railing nearby.

I know I’m not alone in this. Almost 2.5 million people have watched the TED talk in which Dan Meyer deconstructs the way we present maths problems to students in classrooms – and with it our whole approach to teaching mathematics.

Many students have a hard time marrying the maths seen in the classroom with the maths outside it. To solve this, Dan Meyer argues problems should be presented in such a way that students must come up with the maths in order to solve the question – so that the “math serves the conversation, the conversation doesn’t serve the math”.

New curricula

Can STEM provide the context needed for this? The new GCSE maths requires increased reasoning and problem-solving – and most importantly resilience – in unfamiliar contexts. Science, engineering and computing can provide rich frameworks in which to apply mathematics. In return, maths now comprises a large proportion of the new GCSE exams in these areas.

Given these recent changes to all STEM subjects, there has never been a better time to create better links between the STEM curriculum areas. As a maths teacher, I can help provide the maths expertise to help students be successful in science, design and technology and computing, and in return I get engaging, enriching contexts in which to teach mathematics.

Collaborative initiatives between science and maths departments aren’t new, but usually I’ve found curriculum, timetabling and time pressures can conspire to scupper joint projects. There are, however, a variety of ways to start working more closely between departments.

Resources that work in both subjects can provide useful “trigger-points” to get the conversation going. But just because the curriculum overlaps, it doesn’t mean that you are necessarily speaking the same language. Just try asking the questions below to both maths and science teachers:

  • What is the difference between a histogram and a bar chart?
  • Does a line of best-fit have to be straight or can it be curved?
  • Do all axes have to start at zero?
  • Is it okay to concertina axes on a graph?
  • Is it ever okay to use a “calculation triangle”?

Instead of causing arguments, discussing any differences in perspective that arise can be mutually beneficial. The new science specifications have a greater emphasis on the use of mathematical skills in science than ever before, but despite the significant overlap between science and mathematics curricula, students don’t always receive the same mathematical message when a topic is met in science as well as in mathematics.

Do teachers of mathematics know the scientific contexts in which students will be expected to use their mathematical skills? Do teachers of science know how basic mathematical concepts are approached in mathematics lessons? Should there be agreed definitions, with consistent methods taught across departments?

Answering the questions above is a great source of professional development. Taking time to explore the demands of the new science and design and technology GCSEs can be a beneficial exercise for many maths departments.

Importantly, by tackling these issues schools can minimise confusion for students as they move from subject to subject, avoiding the need to learn a variety of different techniques and approaches that each seemingly only apply in one subject.

In order to develop STEM skills, we as teachers must first helps students to see the benefits of the links between STEM subjects.

Teaching of the reformed design and technology GCSE begins in September 2017. The GCSE subject content document states that “students must apply relevant knowledge, skills and understanding from key stage 3 and 4 courses in the sciences and mathematics”. It includes specific links to mathematical skills including handling data, graphs, geometry and trigonometry.

School reform minister Nick Gibb stated the changes will strengthen academic rigor and “ensure young people are prepared for life in modern Britain”. He continued: “The reforms are extensive and represent a new qualifications standard, keeping pace with universities’ and employers’ needs.”

The increases in maths content can also be seen at key stage 5. If your maths department hasn’t already offered support to the design and technology department, this term would be a good time to start preparations.

Often, the required skills in these subjects have already been taught in mathematics lessons, but students can struggle to perform the same mathematics in a different context. This can lead to cries of exasperation from teachers and can lower the confidence of students in STEM subjects.

These difficulties provide an opportunity for teachers to work collaboratively when approaching topics relevant to both subjects. The introduction of the new mathematics GCSE requires an increase in the time students spend studying the subject – often at the cost of other subject areas. By working together, design and technology departments can potentially ease the pressure mathematics departments face when delivering their new programme of study.

Resources and support

Help to develop STEM skills in students is also at hand from external sources. Have you considered getting a STEM Ambassador to support the maths lessons? STEM Ambassadors can also help with STEM club activities. STEM Ambassadors are volunteers from a wide range of disciplines across the UK, offering their time and enthusiasm to schools – free of charge – to help demonstrate the value of STEM skills in careers.

By opening the maths classroom door and letting other STEM subjects in, teachers can help provide relevant, engaging learning experiences for students, increase the ability of students to reason and problem-solve and, hopefully, help them perform better not just in maths, but in science, in design and technology and in computing (and in their future careers too).
For these reasons, when I’m asked what I do, I now reply: “Me? I’m still a maths teacher. But I’m also a STEM teacher too.”

  • Michael Anderson is a mathematics specialist with STEM Learning.

Further information

  • STEM Learning runs the National STEM Learning Centre in York and provides professional development, resources, bursaries and tools to teachers, technicians and teaching assistants. Resources and bursary funded CPD to help all STEM teachers are available through the STEM Learning website: www.stem.org.uk
  • STEM Learning also manages the national STEM Clubs and the STEM Ambassadors programmes: www.stemclubs.net and www.stemnet.org.uk/ambassadors/
  • Math class needs a makeover, Dan Meyer, TEDtalk, March 2010: http://bit.ly/2qyHC5L


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