New project aims to improve children’s performance in STEM subjects

Published: 9 August 2023

The Turner Kirk Trust is funding an innovative project at the University of Glasgow to make STEM fields more accessible to all.

The Turner Kirk Trust is funding an innovative project at the University of Glasgow to make STEM fields more accessible to all.

The STEM Spatial Cognition Enhancement project, or STEM SPACE, will provide spatial skills training to primary school children, beginning in August 2023, with the aim of improving their aptitude and confidence with STEM subjects. 

STEM SPACE is led by Professor Quintin Cutts at the University of Glasgow and supported by an advisory board of experts from across the field of spatial skills development and cognition. The project is backed by Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council.

(l-r) Jack Parkinson, of the University’s School of Computing Science, STEM SPACE’s lead researcher; Aislinn Burke, from Glasgow City Council’s Glasgow’s Improvement Challenge team; Ewan Kirk, co-founder and co-chair of the Turner Kirk Trust; Professor Quintin Cutts, head of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Computing Science Education and project director of STEM SPACE.

The project will bring a wealth of scientific research into the relationship between spatial skills – the skills people use to reason about physical objects and the spatial relationships among them – and STEM performance into classrooms across the west of Scotland to improve children’s ability and confidence across STEM subjects. 

A spatialised maths curriculum – teaching typical maths lessons with more spatial activities – will be given to children aged eight to nine years. The ability and achievement of children before and after the spatial skills training will be analysed to measure the impact of the training on outcomes in STEM classes. 

There are often restricted life opportunities for women and those from disadvantaged backgrounds in STEM subjects, and their ideas and perspectives can often be excluded from the creation of innovative STEM-based solutions which are key to improving our society, such as advances in healthcare. 

The project aims to create the evidence needed to tackle this accessibility problem through improving academic performance in STEM subjects and, in turn, the accessibility of jobs in STEM fields, independent of background and birth.

STEM SPACE builds on a similar project delivered successfully in Australian schools as part of research led by the University of Canberra. Materials from that study have been evaluated by the Glasgow researchers and adapted for the context of the Curriculum for Excellence in consultation with teachers.  

Currently, 12 schools in the Glasgow City Council area and nine from Renfrewshire Council will participate in the STEM SPACE pilot, and teachers from those schools have already begun professional development training to help them deliver the programme from August this year. The impact of the training will then be monitored before findings are reported in the first quarter of 2024. 

Ewan Kirk, co-founder and co-chair of the Turner Kirk Trust, said: “STEM SPACE is a fantastic opportunity to build a transformative and scalable solution to inaccessibility in STEM. STEM is at the heart of solving some of the toughest issues we face, so it’s vital that everyone is given the opportunity to study these areas and that these fields are fully representative of the population. Spatial skills training offers us a unique opportunity to make STEM education and careers accessible to all young people, independent of their background.” 

Professor Quintin Cutts is the head of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Computing Science Education, which brings together a multidisciplinary team of academics, researchers and students to develop new research, practice and policy. 

Professor Cutts said: “We’re pleased to be working with the Turner Kirk Trust and local councils from across the west of Scotland on this project, which we think has huge potential to set children up with skills which will help them get to grips with STEM subjects later in their education. What we’re really setting out to teach is a specific method of thinking – the ability to imagine complex, often abstract, shapes, structures, and relationships, and make models in our heads. 

“That’s critically important to STEM subjects, where chemists can benefit from being able to mentally map intricate atomic structures, for example, or computing scientists can visualise the interplay between hardware, software, and human users when building a new program.” 

Jack Parkinson, from the University’s School of Computing Science and STEM SPACE’s lead researcher, said:“The aim of this project is to help all children from every background build the foundations to support abstract thinking as they grow up. Collaborating with teachers from schools across the west of Scotland is a unique opportunity to reach children at a critical stage of their development. 

“We’ve been really encouraged by how positively the training has been received by our partners so far. We’re looking forward to seeing how children benefit from this new approach in the months to come.” 

Aislinn Burke, former teacher and member of Glasgow City Council’s Glasgow’s Improvement Challenge team and STEM SPACE steering committee, said: “Part of what’s exciting about this programme is that it builds on what’s already being taught, adding an additional emphasis on how those skills can be adapted to help children better understand the fundamentals of thinking about STEM. 

“It will also motivate and encourage children to work alongside each other in problem solving, collaborating on strategies, and thinking in new ways. Those are skills that are easily transferable to all kinds of learning, which will help them as the progress through primary school and secondary school and ultimately make them a valuable part of the workforce whatever career they choose to pursue.” 

Higher spatial reasoning skill universally correlates with better STEM performance and achievement – people with high scores on spatial skills tests also tend to have better grades in STEM classes and are more likely to attain jobs in STEM fields.

First published: 9 August 2023

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