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Scotland’s independent schools have had a bumper year for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject results, with 62% of pupils studying maths, 57% studying physics, 62% in chemistry and 63% in biology achieving a Higher grade A.

These outstanding results are testament to our schools’ commitment in encouraging interest in STEM subjects. Emma Watson-Massey is Principal Teacher of Design & Technology at George Heriot’s School and is experiencing this surge in STEM popularity and success first-hand.

We caught up with Emma to find out why we are seeing such demand and achievement in the field and to explore why we are seeing a rise in girls taking an interest in STEM in particular. We also unravel what schools have been doing across the board to encourage participation in STEM topics.  


Describe a typical day in your role?

“I like to arrive at school early to get myself set up for the day. I usually try and catch up with some of my administrative/principal teacher jobs first thing, prioritising the most important tasks. 

“One of the most important parts of my day is spending time talking with my departmental colleagues. I have a great team working with me and a typical day would always involve a decent catch up at some point. When the bell goes at 9am it is usually off to teach and that could be anything from a lively S1 class in the workshop to a National 5 Graphic Communication class working on their final course assignment. At the end of the day there might be a meeting to go to or I might have some pupils in the department for a bit of extra support.”


What are some of the challenges of your role?

“I view challenges as opportunities for change, growth and development and this is the ethos that sits right at the heart of Design & Technology - so challenges are something I’m used to and comfortable with. In teaching, and particularly in this type of subject, you never quite know what twists and turns your lesson might take, what you might have to react to or who might ask you a really challenging question, but that's the level of engagement and interaction that makes it exciting and motivates me to be the best I can.”


What do you like most about your role?

“I think the thing I like most about my role is the excitement and variety that every day brings. Design & Technology is an ever-evolving field with new technologies, new materials, new manufacturing methods, new hardware and software to master – it keeps you on your toes and truly makes you a lifelong learner. 

“Of course, it goes without saying that I enjoy spending time with young people, and what better way is there to spend your working days than with young, energetic, eager to learn, individuals!”


What do you find pupils enjoy most about your classes?

“Pupils enjoy the opportunity to be creative and express themselves and to learn in a different type of environment - by that I mean one that’s a little less like your typical classroom.  

“Design & Technology is a dynamic, fast pace subject where pupils are constantly exploring and problem solving. They enjoy experiential and discovery learning and the sense of freedom and personal achievement that comes with it.”


Has George Heriot’s School taken steps to encourage more girls into STEM subjects? 

“At George Heriot’s we have a significant number of female role models in STEM-related subjects and I really do think that helps and encourages girls to feel more confident in choosing STEM subjects. 

“There are other things that we do such as promoting girls-only initiatives; we had a number of girls attend a women in engineering residential experience at Aberdeen University in July 2019, and a number of girls attended a Smallpeice Trust residential STEM course in June 2019. 

“There was an Ada Lovelace Event at Napier University in October 2019 and a girl-only physics event that some of our pupils attended in earlier this year. This session, the Heriot’s Arkwright scholars are introducing a STEM club for P7-S2 girls. Our Computing Science department run Turing’s Testers and CyberFirst Girls GCHQ.”


What’s the one thing about Design and Technology that you wish more people knew? 

“It’s a multi-faceted subject with many elements that permeate other areas of the curriculum. But above all, it’s a subject that develops intellectual curiosity and encourages young people to develop the capacity to think in an innovative and critical way through exploring real world opportunities for design and complex problem solving.”


Have you noticed a change in uptake patterns for courses related to Design & Technology over the years in your role?

“I have taught at George Heriot’s for 15 years and in that time, I have seen a big change in the uptake patterns in Design & Technology subjects.

“It does vary year-on-year, but we have had healthy numbers coming through the department for many years with a really good gender balance. In addition to our N5 – AH courses, we offer other complementary courses in S5 and S6 where pupils can come and explore materials and manufacturing as well as continue to develop skills in creativity, dexterity and use of design and engineering software.” 


Overall, what can schools be doing to encourage more children to take an interest in STEM subjects?

“Well, there is so much that schools could do but I genuinely think that the majority of schools are already doing so much to address this. 

“I recently did an audit of STEM activity at George Heriot’s and the amount that we offer is pretty outstanding. Most schools are forming partnerships with colleges, universities and employers to engage young people by helping them to understand the career routes available. Schools are also offering opportunities to take part in STEM-themed events and experiences. There are numerous awards and competitions that all help to promote interest in STEM, and some schools are offering STEM days.

“With all these opportunities there is, however, no substitute for hands-on experiences and schools should be exposing children to STEM-based activities from a young age. To do this effectively schools need to invest in supporting CPD opportunities for teachers so that they are confident in delivering appropriate experiences in the classroom. 

“I think, however, it’s a lot to do with getting children engaged in critical thinking and problem solving, and then the STEM activities will follow on naturally. Children are naturally inquisitive, and we need to offer them experiences and a curriculum that will allow that curiosity to flourish and continue to develop throughout their education.”


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