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How do I inspire young students to choose and excel in STEM subjects?

Researchers in Schools maths teacher Mari Chikvaidze reflects on how she supports secondary pupils to explore and enjoy STEM subjects.

My name is Mari Chikvaidze and I am a teacher of Mathematics at Claremont High School Academy. I would like to share with you how my background and experiences of working with The Brilliant Club have shaped my desire to inspire young students to choose and excel in STEM subjects.

I have been trained by the highly-experienced Researchers in Schools team at The Brilliant Club to design and deliver two types of learning activities: The first is a widening participation activity for which I created a university-style course based on my own PhD research interests; I will tell you more about it later in this post, as this is what I am most passionate about! The second is a subject attainment activity, for which I deployed findings from cutting-edge research in cognitive science and metacognition to boost students’ abilities to learn and remember complex ideas in mathematics.

But let me first start by telling you a bit about my background.

Prior to joining The Brilliant Club, I obtained a first degree in Physics in my home country of Georgia. I then studied in the UK and Sweden for a Master’s degree in Bioinformatics, and finally I obtained a combined PhD in Mathematics and Natural sciences from the University of Heidelberg, in Germany.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of my doctoral programme, I acquired an in-depth understanding of the connections between STEM subjects. This has not only given me a grounding across mathematics and the natural sciences, but enabled me to interpret issues in a holistic manner. This motivated me to train to become a school teacher and inspire students at an early age to engage fully with STEM subjects and to help them understand the entire context in which the subject sits.

Joining The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme in 2013 enabled me to pursue this goal. With the help and guidance of the highly-skilled and enthusiastic team at The Brilliant Club, I designed my very first university-style course on computational drug design. I was also trained to teach the content of this course in a small group setting to talented students from underrepresented backgrounds.

The tutorials that I delivered in my free time helped me balance the frustration I was experiencing in my work life. At that time, there was no teacher training route available to people like me. Our options were either to work as teaching assistants in state schools or teach in the independent sector. Having been born and brought up in a developing country, I was determined to devote my time to teaching students from underrepresented backgrounds, much like my own. Therefore, despite the limited opportunities to influence the learning happening in classrooms, I chose to work as a TA.

In summer 2014, The Brilliant Club announced the launch of a bespoke teacher training programme – Researchers in Schools. I was overjoyed and could not believe it, when after the rigorous selection process, I was offered to join the first cohort of just 20 PhD graduates, to train to be a teacher. This amazing opportunity enabled me to maintain my research profile, whilst learning about subject content delivery and evidence-based pedagogical approaches. For me, applying to be a PhD teacher with Researchers in Schools, was a natural progression from being a Scholars Programme PhD Tutor with The Brilliant Club.

There are two reasons why I think RIS is so successful at attracting female STEM PhDs to teaching: Firstly, teaching enables us to maintain a healthy work-life balance (I am a mother of two small children and no other job has holidays overlapping with their school breaks). The second reason is the opportunity to share our passion for STEM and our own PhD research interests with young girls for whom it is important to have a female role model. Teaching these students is a very rewarding experience indeed, and the one that gives me the deepest sense of fulfilment.

As a RIS participant, I have been teaching maths four days a week and spending one day a week on RIS-specific activities; these include but are not limited to: talking to students about university and encouraging them to pursue STEM subjects, conducting educational research in the field of mathematics education and presenting my work at national and international events, and arranging work experience placements for some of my students. I also design and deliver widening participation and subject attainment activities to small groups of students in my placement schools.

I have delivered my widening participation activity to three different groups of students, some published their final assignments in a peer reviewed journal and others presented it at the International Science Conference for Students hosted by St. Paul’s Independent School. Just to give you some context, this multidisciplinary course is about designing a drug to target a disease of the student’s choice using mathematical modelling and computer simulations. The course is designed in such a way that students are encouraged to find something they are interested in, for instance one student worked on designing a drug to target cancer – a disease that her father had experienced, and another student investigated drugs available for treating depression, and proposed a model to minimise some of the side effects. Allowing students to choose their own projects motivates them to do well; it allows them to find a gap in the scientific literature and conduct an original piece of research. This is much like what we, PhD students, do at the university level, but on a smaller scale.

The main challenge for my girls who are interested in STEM subjects is that there are not enough female role models to inspire them. The Lampton students who presented at the International Science Conference for Students were the only female delegates representing a non-selective state school present. This is what they had to say about the experience: “At first instance, we felt incongruous to the setting as we were from a state school, however the teachers and students from various schools made us feel welcome which gave us the confidence to represent our school and share the knowledge we gained throughout the course”.

Despite being surrounded by privately educated male students of their age, my students soon realised that there was one thing they all had in common and that was a passion for science.

To me, this is what being a PhD teacher at the Brilliant Club is all about. It’s about instilling a love of learning and promoting equal opportunities for all students despite their gender, background or family income. Having played my humble part in their success story fills my heart with joy and gives my life its purpose.