STEM Co-ordinator Mrs Shercliff discusses her specially tailored approach to STEM at St Mary’s Junior School

STEM Co-ordinator Mrs Shercliff discusses her specially tailored approach to STEM at St Mary’s Junior School

Tessa Shercliff delivers specialised STEM provision at the Junior School for children aged 3 to 11.  During her time at St Mary’s, Mrs Shercliff has revolutionised our STEM programme to highlight the relevance and enjoyment of STEM subjects to all students. Mrs Shercliff explained how her background in STEM galvanised this programme, what makes STEM at St Mary’s Junior School so special, and what she is looking forward to most about teaching in the new lab. 

Mrs Shercliff has always been passionate about STEM. This fueled her Engineering studies at the University of Cambridge, and her research afterwards at the University of Oxford. She was originally drawn to teaching to share her interest in science with others, while also raising her family. She became a part-time Physics teacher at St Mary’s School, which was attended by her three daughters, where she loved the staff and was delighted with the students’ enthusiasm. She has stayed here since, and increasingly came to specialise in Junior School education. 

Mrs Shercliff said of this decision, ‘I’ve taught the full spectrum of ages, from Preschool to delivering lab demonstrations at university, but I really belong with small children. Their enthusiasm is so exciting and inspiring, as they come to their lessons with open minds and curiosity. It’s a time when education can have a huge impact, providing a key window of opportunity to show students the interest in all their subjects’. 

Indeed, Mrs Shercliff has tailored her STEM teaching to meet the needs of young students, and to address the later drop-off of girls in STEM subjects. ‘When teaching older students, I was struck by how girls who showed amazing aptitude for the sciences could become hesitant to take STEM subjects beyond GCSE level. Maths and Physics show the greatest drop-off of female students, whereas subjects that seem to have greater practical appeal, like Medicine, held students’ interest. As this is certainly not due to lack of ability, I came to think that this was due to how STEM teaching is often approached and delivered.’ 

‘I decided to start tackling these issues early on at St Mary’s Junior School by delivering a STEM programme that showcases the practical and real-world applications of even of the most ‘theoretical’ sciences from day one. Moreover, I decided not to treat subjects as discreet types of knowledge but to show their connections, allowing the girls to realise their relevance early on.’ 

From Year 1 to Year 6, Mrs Shercliff’s lessons focus on solving real-world STEM problems, which draw on their other lessons, as each class tackles one project each half term. 

‘This term, for example, Year 5 have been learning about Africa. Our science lessons have been looking at materials, mixtures, and material properties in relation to issues of clean water. According to UN statistics, on a global scale, half of the people who drink water from unsafe sources live in Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 24% of the population have access to safe drinking water. Structuring lessons around real-world problems like this can help draw their subjects together and make lessons feel more meaningful.’   

‘Year 5 have made water filters to sort materials by size, then considered how evaporation and condensation could be used to sort out dissolved substances. The students were challenged to apply this learning and sort out a mixture of stones, sand, salt and staples! Turning to technology, I explained about how clean water can be found deep underground, and how rocks fulfil a similar function to our water filters. In our next lesson, focusing on technology and engineering, the girls built water pumps. This way, we draw together multiple sciences, technology, engineering, designing and problem-solving, to consider a central problem.’  

Often, Mrs Shercliff finds, this approach leads students to grasp concepts more thoroughly and faster than when working through Maths or science questions from exercise books. 

‘In one lesson, Reception was looking at water and experimenting with floating and sinking. The girls made boats, which were powered by balloons – they blew up the balloons, and when the let go this sent the boats forwards. The girls were having great fun with the bubbles, when one child realised ‘the bubbles push backwards, and the boat goes forward’. In that moment, she had alighted on Newton’s third law of motion, just through practical observation.’  

In the youngest years, Mrs Shercliff advances this approach through woodwork, which allows for similar observation and application of STEM idea.  

‘Reception students who would usually take some time to grasp and practice counting often find learning these skills more engaging, and their results more tangible, when faced with practical problems. For example, when building a model car, one student who struggled with addition in usual lessons easily grasped that their vehicle would not function on two wheels, but could use ‘two more’, demonstrating a firm grasp of these ideas in practice.’  

‘This is one of my favourite things about teaching here: my lessons have the time and flexibility to respond to the students’ needs and the queries that they raised in class. No two lessons are the same, as I tailor my lessons to make the most of every student's STEM potential.’ 

Looking to the Junior School STEM lessons ahead, Mrs Shercliff  said she was most looking forward to ‘being in the new lab, of course! I’m so excited about all the new possibilities it brings to Junior School STEM teaching. Even just the spacious storage gives new potential for the girls to access equipment themselves, building their sense of responsibility for their own practicals. It has so much space to display the girls’ work too, so all the girls can take pride in their work. The girls loved their first session of activities in the space. They thought it looked amazing and were so excited. I can’t wait to make the most of that enthusiasm going forwards.’ 

Find out more about our new lab and STEM at the Junior School here.