Bringing science into schools – STEM/STEAM Day (8th November)

November the 8th is National STEM/STEAM Day, which is a special one for all scientists. This day focuses on the importance of engaging children and fostering curiosity.

What does STEM/STEAM mean?

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. In the early 2000s, studies revealed that U.S. students were falling behind in STEM-related areas. The report made worrying predictions, with implications for the economy and employability of the workforce. It was decided that it was vital to engage children in STEM from an early age to nurture a new generation of savvy scientists/engineers/tech professionals/mathematicians.

At some point along the way, art was also included in this initiative. And so the acronym was revised to STEAM

This drive gave birth to National STEM/STEAM Day on the 8th of November. Schools across the U.S. use this day to engage their pupils with fun and interactive activities. Thanks to the uniting power of the internet, this idea quickly spread across the world. Now, many countries unite on this day to celebrate STEM/STEAM and to join in the fun.

Suggestions for fun and educational STEM/STEAM day with your family

Here are some quick tips to inspire you to bring your love of STEM/STEAM home to your family;

  • Not just for kids! Everyone is free to get into the fun, so do not be shy!
  • Engage with their interests. Chances are, that most people have hobbies that already have roots in STEM. A great way to engage someone is to make it relatable, so think laterally here. Some examples; train sets (engineering), Minecraft (coding), dinosaurs (geology), cute animals (zoology and conservation), the list goes on!
  • Look for free resources online. In the modern age, an ocean of information is available on the internet. A quick search for “STEM activities” and you will have hundreds of ideas, suitable for a variety of ages and abilities.
  • Let your family help you plan your day. Teamwork time! Before the big day, get together with pens and paper and brainstorm ideas for your family. Let everyone join in and make suggestions, and you are certain to have a fantastic fun-filled day!

Jenny Sheppard teaches pre-schoolers about geology and fossils

jenny sheppard petrostrat palynologist stratigrapher staff photo

Jenny Sheppard, a PetroStrat palynologist, was asked to give a presentation about fossils at her 4-year-old daughter’s class as part of their ‘under the sea’ learning theme. Specifically, she focussed on Ammonites (an extinct mollusc that looked like a squid in a big snail shell). She kept it local to Cowbridge, South Wales, as that’s where the school is based. 

Luckily, the Vale of Glamorgan was under a shallow Jurassic sea and so Ammonites, along with other awesome Jurassic fossils, are commonly found along the coast and in quarries here. This local connection was also important to the kid’s school curriculum. 

So armed with a box of ammonites gathered by colleagues over the years, the local geology maps and some basic diagrams of ammonite form and some YouTube clips of how they might have lived she went into the class. 

Kids were wowed with the fact that humans have only existed for 6 million years, and that Ammonites died out 66 million years ago (thank you Google!) and that Ammonites existed throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous – which is 140 million years. 

Photo by Sea Hickin (CC BY 2.0)

Burning questions about fossils (from a group of 4-year-olds)

The kids posed tough questions for our scientist, and here are some of the great questions she had to field;

  1. “Did dinosaurs eat Ammonites?” 
    • Jenny answered: Pleiosaurs did- dinosaur-like animals that lived in the sea with the Ammonites 
  2. “What did the Ammonites eat?” 
    • Jenny answered: Belemnites (Like squid- shows fossil Belemnite) and fish and other small sea creatures
  3. “How did they swim?” 
    • Jenny answered: They used air/water in the chambers in their bodies to move themselves up and down through the water- and their tentacles to catch their food. We think they moved backwards and forwards through the water like modern Nautilus do. 
  4. “Why is the sea not over the Vale of Glamorgan now?” 
    • Jenny answered: In short, because of a thing called plate tectonics. The surface of the earth is made up of plates like the pieces of a puzzle and these move around over millions and millions of years and crash into each other very, very slowly, or pull apart from each other very, very slowly and this means that the lands and the seas change where they are over a long, long time. Also land and sea levels- where they are in relation to each other can change over a long, long time. It has been millions of years since the Jurassic sea was here and in that time the sea level changed to where it is now.  
  5. “Why were we under the sea?” 
    • Jenny answered: We were not under the sea- the Vale of Glamorgan was- because the sea level was higher in Jurassic times. 
  6. “Why are the Ammonites fossils?” 
    • Jenny answered: Because they died millions of years ago and when they died the fell to the bottom of the sea and got covered over with sand and silt and mud and then over millions and millions of years they were buried and the pressure and heat from being buried turned them into fossils. 
  7. “Why are they dead?”
    • Jenny answered: Everything dies eventually- but at the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 million years ago a huge meteor hit the Earth and that’s when all the Ammonites (and dinosaurs) went extinct. 
  8. “My daddy collects rubbish off the beach, why do you collect fossils off the beach?” 
    • Jenny answered: Because I’m a palaeontologist and I think fossils are more exciting that rubbish- but I also collect rubbish from beaches because it’s a good idea to do that- never throw litter anywhere except a bin. 
  9. “I ate a squid once. Can we eat Ammonites?” 
    • Jenny answered: No, because they’re extinct. 

As you can imagine- a lot of arm-waving went on as Jenny acted out various squid swimming actions. The discussion eventually leads to plate tectonics (cue: a lot more arm waving, to explain this complex principle to small children!) which lead to the final question of the day; ““is there a volcano under Cowbridge?”. Jenny answered: No, but there are volcanoes in Iceland, where two of the earth’s plates are pulling apart. 

Much fun was had by all, who doesn’t love playing with and learning about fossils!  

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