Breaking down barriers, one after another

May 2024

At school, Georgie dreamed of becoming a vet. ‘Don’t bother’, her chemistry teacher told her, ‘you won’t get the grades’. Instead, she became an award-winning science teacher herself. Now, as IRISSchool Innovation Lead, she works to ensure all students can be inspired by STEM.


When I was in school, the sciences were my favourite subjects. But my teacher, an elderly man in a white lab coat, only seemed to encourage the boys. I worked really hard and wanted to apply for veterinary medicine at university but was told I wouldn’t get the grades. So I took a place on a biochemistry degree instead—only later to get the exact grades I would have needed for my dream course.


What do you do with a biochemistry degree? I had no idea. In school, we’d only really discussed clear-cut career paths: becoming a doctor or a vet. I also didn’t like the thought of being in a lab all day. Just by chance, I attended a Teach First careers event on my campus and found out there was a huge need for science teachers. I decided to try work experience at a school, and realised I loved it.


Before I knew it, I was qualified and teaching science at a big comprehensive school in the Midlands. I loved coming up with creative ways of getting the students excited about what they were learning. I used to get them to throw coats on me to explain sedimentation, dance around the class to demonstrate eutrophication and act out ionic bonding as a wedding, with a fairy godmother who transferred electrons between atoms.


As much as I was inspiring students in my own classroom, I also knew student attitudes towards STEM wouldn’t really change without a bigger strategy. Hearing about what I was up to, the headteacher gave me an opportunity to take the natural next step: He asked me to design and implement a three-year plan for boosting engagement in STEM across the whole school. Although we were expecting an Ofsted inspection within the next 12 months, we were keen that this wasn’t simply a box-ticking exercise but had a meaningful impact on the students and school as a whole.


One of the first things I did was survey all the students to get a baseline understanding of their attitudes. I always knew there were challenges, but like many teachers, lacked the evidence needed to be strategic and drive change. Now, I could show my colleagues the data: Lots of students thought science was only for the ‘clever kids’. Hardly any girls saw science as for them. They had little idea what careers were out there. They didn’t really know what STEM was. Faced with the facts, we had no choice but to act.


During that first year, we held assemblies for each year group explaining what STEM is and why it’s important. We made STEM more visible, with displays in every corridor and badges for all the teachers to wear. The New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering, a specialist engineering university nearby, brought a refurbished shipping container hosting a classroom into the playground—the Ingenuity Studio, as they called it. There were workshops throughout the week and drop-in lunchtime sessions. There were simpler changes too. Normally the school’s social media was all about the football team or the dance club, now we made sure our activities were included. It created a buzz, it was all STEM STEM STEM!


In the second year, I focused on building strategic relationships with colleges, universities and local industry—so students had a taste of what real STEM was like in the world beyond school. There was something for each year group. The year 8 students did an IET Faraday Challenge day. Year 9 students did their bronze accreditation for the EDT Industrial Cadets. Girls in Year 9 also went to QinetiQ, a defence tech company, for an interschool coding competition. Along with our careers lead, I took year 10 girls to the Stemettes’ MonsterConfidence event in Birmingham.


We knew that students needed to see people like them working in STEM fields to imagine themselves doing it. A former student, now doing her PhD in astrophysics, gave an inspiring presentation about her research. We also showed them that the wider world wanted more young people to consider STEM careers. Someone came in from a local manufacturing plant where they design cutting-edge machinery to talk to students about their apprenticeships. By the end of the year, we had a sustained STEM programme that directly addressed concerns raised by the student survey.


In the third year, Covid hit. As with most things, priorities changed, but we adapted and kept going. We had an online STEM club throughout the lockdowns. When we got back to school, everyone was just trying to get back on track. Local industry wasn’t able to do as much outreach as before. But the crucial thing is that students were already talking about STEM in new ways, their enthusiasm was palpable, and more and more girls were showing an interest in these subjects—shifts that outlasted the pandemic.


My three-year experiment in STEM engagement was hard work, but it had a lasting impact. It taught me a few things:

      1. Data is invaluable, it helps you target the real issues and just can’t be ignored.

      2. Support from SLT and colleagues makes all the difference.
      3. Students want to know how science relates to the real world, through cutting-edge research and realistic career paths.
      4. Above all, young people can become passionate about STEM, they just need a bit of guidance and encouragement.

It left me with a few questions, too: What would my three-year experiment look like over a longer term, with external support? What if teachers had a helping hand to get started, and were able to share ideas, materials and strategies? What if this way of engaging students in STEM was built into the curriculum, so it became a fully resourced priority?


As IRIS’ School Innovation Lead, I’ve been working with eight schools over the past year to answer these very questions. Through our support, these schools have been growing a culture of research and innovation, helping students to understand how STEM really works and what real scientists do. As a result, many of these schools have started carrying out authentic research projects—from measuring environmental changes with satellite imagery to building nano-scale structures with DNA. These experiences are transforming the ways students see STEM and what they could do with it.


When I think back to school, I remember feeling discouraged despite all my enthusiasm for science. As a teacher, I made sure students got opportunities to explore STEM—first in my own classroom, then across the school. Now, my ambition is for all schools to transform their approach to STEM, breaking down barriers and ensuring all young people can imagine their own pathways into these exciting fields.


We want every young person to have the chance to experience authentic research in school.



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