We are currently experiencing a significant shortage of staff skilled in a number of industries, especially those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). ‘We’ in this in-stance includes fellow members of the European Union. The shortage is be-coming so acute that the EU has in-cluded measures to gap this bridge in its 2020 growth strategy.

Malta is not unaffected by this phenomenon. While the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) has estimated that by 2025 approximately 26 per cent of all jobs will be in high level occupations in science, engineering, healthcare, business and teaching, the Malta Business Bureau has once again expressed concern at the fact that finding people with the right skills is proving quite difficult in some sections.

In an effort to encourage more youngsters to take up science subjects at school, a team working within the Ministry for Education and Employment’s Directorate for Learning and Assessment Programmes has been quietly working to promote STEM subjects in schools, especially in the last five years.

The need for the popularisation of science is not just a local phenomenon and is felt across Europe.

Assistant director Desiree Bugeja Scicluna and her team of education officers (EOs) have launched a number of initiatives that introduce students to science subjects through activities away from the traditional classroom setting.

“Our scope is to engage, stimulate and motivate students as we encourage more children to pursue their studies in the sciences with the goal of taking up STEM careers, so it’s a continuum that starts as early as can be in primary, secondary and post-secondary and linking to the world of work,” Ms Bugeja Scicluna says.

“The need for science popularisation is not just a local phenomenon and is felt across Europe. In the past, sciences were perceived as offering very limited career prospects – doctor, pharmacist, nurse or vet – but in reality there are so many more career options. The sciences have also gained a reputation for being complex and time-consuming subjects to study compared to other subjects perceived as being ‘easier options’ but everything we do in life is somehow related to science and we’ve embarked on a process to highlight that link for our students.”

The Junior Science Clubs were launched three years ago in collaboration with local councils. These after-school clubs, which run for a scholastic year, are open to all students in Year 3 (aged seven) to Year 6 (aged 11) regard-less of which school they attend. Since all participants of a science club work together in one classroom, the children are also given the opportunity to work with children of different ages and from different schools and localities.

“Participants were able to engage in research-based activities such as designing and building aluminium foil boats and seeing how far they could travel in water and building spaghetti marshmallow towers. The children really enjoyed these activities which, in addition to giving them prac-tical, hands-on experience, also included a great deal of problem solving, critical thinking and decision-making skills as children were encouraged to come up with their own solutions to meeting the challenges they were set,” says Isabelle Zerafa, EO for Primary Science.

“We round the year off by setting the children an open-ended project in which they design their own question, investigate it and present it to the class. These projects are then exhibited to parents during the final session of the year.”

This year the science clubs are running in Pembroke and Victoria and the team is hoping that more councils will express a willingness to host similar clubs as from next year. They are also extending the application deadline for any students who wish to join the science club this year (application forms can be obtained from the local councils of Pembroke and Victoria).

X’hemM – a play on the Maltese words xjenza (science) and matematika (maths) – is another initiative aimed at primary school students. The team of education officers collaborate to devise a series of workshops which incor-porate maths and science for a field trip in which all schools are invited to participate.

The event is so popular that participation is often a case of the early school nabbing the workshop as places fill up rapidly. Each edition of X’hemM runs for a week, attracting around 250 students each day, totalling to approximately 1,200 students from a range of State and non-State schools.

The sheer popularity of the event is not the only interesting fact about it as Melanie Casha Sammut, EO for Primary Mathematics, ex-plains: “X’hemM is a series of work-shops organised in collaboration with the local council of the locality host-ing the event. We’ve organised X’hemM in Mellieħa, St Elmo, Vittoriosa and Mġarr among other places, giving participants the opportunity to use maths and science in context and discovering how relevant these sub-jects are to daily life.

“We set tasks which are specific to the location so that, for example, when we organised X’hemM in Mġarr, the ac-tivities were all connected to the village. We took children to the fields to measure the PH levels of soil and we calculated the height of the church.”

The team is already busy planning the next edition of X’hemM, so if you happen to see an unusual amount of schoolchildren in Ta’ Qali (possibly) some time next March, you will have probably stumbled on X’hemM 2018.

Keen to connect sciences to ‘normal’ life and other subjects, the team organises one-off events connected to, or in-spired by, other events. Oli Maths combined maths and PE related to the Olympic Games while the anniversary of the Great Siege was the perfect opportunity to morph social studies, maths and science into the Besieged event.

One of the happy consequences of these initiatives is, as Ms Scicluna Bugeja says, the fact that class teachers often go on to adopt some of the teaching methods used in the events. While it may not be feasible to regularly take classes on field trips, students can enjoy putting their maths and science into practice in the vicinity of, or even within, their own school.

“We also work quite a lot to target the gifted students; regretfully there has been some neglect in this area as schools focus more on helping struggling students for inclusive purposes. However, an inclusive pedagogy takes into account all the students and gifted students are part of that spectrum. We have embarked on initiatives to bring STEM subjects to these students at both the primary and secondary school level,” says Ms Bugeja Scicluna as she introduces the High5 club coordinated by Ms Casha Sammut.

Primary schools are invited to nominate the top mathematics performers to participate in this after-school maths competition which kicks off with a qualifying test to ascertain who will go through to the next round. Once they have made it to round two, the stu-dents are set open-ended problems they sometimes approach in ways the teachers themselves wouldn’t have thought of before. In addition to challenging these children intellectually, High5 gives them a safe space in which they can try something and possibly fail at it.

“Although this is a competition with a winning team and winning students, the entire experience is so enriching that winning becomes a secondary aim for the children. Crucially, our contact with the children doesn’t end with the competition as we continue to follow their progress to make sure they continue to progress.”

Towards the end of Year 8 (formerly Form 2), State school students choose the three ‘option’ subjects they will be studying up to Year 11 (Form 5) and the team offers two main initiatives at this crucial stage.

“The Science Safari is a national science treasure hunt that has been held on a Saturday morning for the last four years. Schools can nominate as many teams of three as they wish and the event attracts around 300 students each year,” explains Mario Muscat, EO for Integrated Science. “We find that students have a wonderful time looking for clues in the outdoors as they scramble around trying to be the first team to solve the clues. We’re always grateful to the teachers and parents who come along to sup-port the participants and usually organise something like a guided walk for them to enjoy while they wait.”

The Teen Science Café is a rather more sedate, though no less interesting affair, which is also aimed at students in Year 8.

“We wanted to find a way to promote the careers that are open to students of science, so we have started inviting professionals whose career is not based within the traditional scientific career path of medicine but forensic scientists, bomb disposal experts, transportation professionals, etc. These professionals volunteer to chat to stu-dents about their work in a very informal setting and students become very enthused about what the guests have to tell them. Depending on the school, students can meet with at least nine professionals from different fields across the scholastic year,” says Ms Bugeja Scicluna.

“This year, four schools are going to set up a video link to CERN, giving students a virtual tour of the laboratory there. Since we introduced these sessions, schools have reported a steep in-crease in the number of students taking science subjects which had previously fallen out of favour.”

Penelope Fitzgerald, EO for Biology, adds: “As is the case in primary schools, we are also keen to target gifted students in secondary schools and organise a number of olympiads in maths, robotics and science. The Malta Junior Science Olympiad is especially popular with the Year 11 students nominated to participate. Each year the competition is based on a theme and participants have to solve three problem tasks connected to biology, physics and chemistry. They need to engage in a scientific thought process to decide which apparatus they will need for their specific investigation and the top three teams are awarded prizes.”

Last year, the Go For Research Intern-ship Programme in collaboration with the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Malta was also launched.

“Members of the top three teams were given the opportunity to work with university researchers in a number of areas and we are delighted that this year we will be extending this opportunity to the top seven teams,” enthuses Ms Bugeja Scicluna. 

This article first appeared in Child magazine.

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