Family Learning Awards shortlist

NUSTEM’s research and practice has shown the importance of families in the development of young children’s understanding and aspirations for their future. In our work we try to build in opportunities for children and their adults to play and learn together.
We’re delighted to announce that ‘Play, Be, C‘ has been shortlisted in the #EarlyYears category for the Family Learning Awards from the Campaign for Learning!
The aim of ‘Play, Be, C’ is to develop, deliver and enable a high-quality STEM activities in the Early Years and Foundation Stage (EYFS).
Through Play, Be, C’s family STEM story-times and linked activities, families can explore STEM together, parents can connect with STEM curriculum content, and teachers add an interesting and novel method of engaging with their families.
The Family Learning Awards celebrate imaginative, innovative and inclusive ways of delivering learning opportunities with families and we think that Play, Be, C definitely fits the bill.

NUSTEM Update – Spring 2024

Every term our team looks back on the work we have completed throughout the past few months and this blog will outline some of the work NUSTEM has completed since January.

It’s been a short, but busy term. Since January we have completed 96 activities with over 2500 children, 300 parents and 200 teachers.

In our partner primary schools we’ve been delivering three main workshops: The Entomologist, The Computer Programmer and The Mathematician.

In the Entomologist workshop, Mel and Caitlin visited Year 4 classes. The children learned why we need insects to survive and what different entomologists are interested in. Parents and carers also took part in some of the workshops, and were encouraged to try out an activity at home. The children and their adult chose an insect and created it out of plasticine to take home.  At the end of the session, all the children were given a sticker which includes a QR code linking to more information about bugs on the NUSTEM website.

In the Computer Programmer workshops, Mel and Caitlin visited Year 2 classes to develop their interests in computer programming. The children learnt about the Mars rover and tried to write code to move the robot. In these sessions we used Cubetto robots to show different ways a robot can be programmed to move. Additionally, the children all took home a game which lets them be a computer programmer whenever they want!

Joe has continued delivering the Mathematician workshop with year 5 and 6 students. This workshop shows children that maths isn’t just numbers and equations but can be about patterns and repetition. The children learn about self-similar patterns and how they are everywhere in nature. We also explain why mathematicians struggle to measure the perimeter of the UK coastline and asked the children how they could fix this problem. They looked at how the Sierpinski triangle is formed through a specific algorithm, and were fascinated by this and continued to make the pattern at home and have sent us their creations!

Joe and Annie have also been supporting Dr Richard Morton on his project ‘Solar Stanzas’ which sees year 5 pupils writing poetry inspired by Richard’s research on the Sun.

In February, Antonio hosted NUSTEM’s annual Experience week. During February half-term 64 students from schools and colleges around the area had the opportunity to experience a week of university life though three different strands: Maths, Chemistry and Physics. During the week the students took part in different opportunities including guest lectures, campus tours, meeting with Northumbria Researchers and much more. The feedback from the students and staff involved has been excellent.  Antonio has also delivered an assembly on careers in renewable energy to partner secondary schools.

Jonathan has been planning the next steps for the Connect family digital tinkering project that finished last year. This includes looking for opportunities to extend the project to different areas and also starting to develop research to examine ideas that were explored during the project. For example, a new PhD student will be starting at the university later this year who will explore playful learning, learning through failure, digital tinkering, intergenerational learning, and inclusivity. This PhD continues our productive collaboration with the Life Science Centre. Additionally, Jonathan has been working on our curriculum career tools and other career resources to see how we can develop these and make them easier to use.

Carol has been working on a research project to explore how the STEM Person of the Week posters can be used by primary and secondary teachers to encourage career-related learning as part of classroom teaching.  There are 40 schools from across England involved in the project, and after Easter sets of posters will be sent to over 250 teachers to use in their teaching next half-term. Carol also spent last week at the Royal Society Pairing Scheme which links 30 scientists with civil servants and parliamentarians to learn about how parliament and policy making works in practice.  Carol was able to spend some time shadowing Chi Onwurah, who is the MP for Newcastle Central.

And finally, our resource for Early years educators –  Play, Be, C – has been shortlisted for the STEM initiative award at the Educate North Awards. We’ll find out later in April if we have won.

NUSTEM Update – Autumn 2023

This academic year, NUSTEM has been delivering three main workshops in primary school: The Geologist, Naval Architect, The Mathematician. We’ve also been running our annual Sixth form evening lectures as well. Since September we have completed 70 activities engaging over 2000 children, 200 parents and 250 teachers.

For the Geologist workshop, year 3 classes came to visit the Think Lab here at Northumbria University. They have learned how rocks are formed, considered the attributes a geologist needs and what a career in geology might look like. This workshop has had a lot of positive feedback from the children and their teachers. Children can also tell their families what they have been doing using a QR code which links to information on the NUSTEM website.

In the Naval Architect workshops Mel and Caitlin visited Year 1 classes to develop interest in Naval Architecture. Pupils made boats from different materials and tested what shape these materials needed to be to float. After the session, we invited parents into the school for a workshop so the children could show their parents/guardians what they have learnt with us.

Our new Mathematician workshop works with year 5 and 6 students to show children that maths isn’t just numbers and equations but can be about patterns and repetition. We taught them about self-similar patterns and how they are everywhere in nature. We also showed them how mathematicians struggle to measure the perimeter of the coastline and asked the children how they would fix this problem. They looked at how the Sierpinski triangle is formed through a specific algorithm, and they were fascinated by this and continued to make the pattern at home and have sent us their creations!

The annual Sixth form evening lecture series coordinated by Antonio have also taken place this term. This year the evening lectures covering topics in maths and physics including ‘The Physics of bio- inspired by surfaces’ by Prashant Agrawal, ‘Talking in light’ by Mojtaba Mansour Abadi, ‘Heating solar cells’ by Giulia Longo, ‘Why does space sing’ by Dan Ratliff, ‘When plants eat animals’ by Ciro Semprebon, ‘Snowflakes in the Oven: coronal rain in the solar corona’ by Patrick Antolin, ‘An introduction to quantum chaos’ by Remy Dubertrand, and ‘The complex beauty of fractal geometry’ by Matteo Sommacal. The lectures were well-attended by students from different schools from around the region. Excellent feedback has been received from those that attended. Keep an eye out for them starting again in November 2024!

Joe visited Boulby Mine this November, as part of our STFC funded project ‘STEM Communities’. Boulby Mine is a laboratory owned and managed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and is especially interesting as it is 1.1km below the ground.  Being underground and surrounded by salt and rock makes it a good place for measuring background radiation. The STFC are a UK based group that looks after some of the biggest UK experiments. NUSTEM is currently working with the staff at the mine to create a set of STEM person of the week cards to showcase and highlight the different people who work at Boulby: this set will be available on our website in the New Year.

Last month we launched Climate Change: It’s in Our Hands , a classroom-based game designed to make the often-complex subject of climate change accessible and engaging in a meaningful way. NUSTEM worked together with colleagues in the geography department, a local design company Roots and Wings, and children in New York primary school to design the game. We are also starting a new project with Northumbria’s Geography department and environmental colleagues at Newcastle University which is looking at how university outreach can support diversity of people who want to study geography and environmental science. The project was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

This month also saw the announcement of a new partnership between Northumbria University, the UK Space Agency and global aerospace and security company Lockheed Martin to set up NESST, a centre for supporting space research and technology in the region. Annie has recently finished a commission to carry out the evaluation of the Lockheed Martin Space Camps for Year 6 and Year 12 delivered at the University of Sunderland. As part of NESST, NUSTEM will be supporting visits to NESST from partner primary schools, once the building is finished in 2025.

We have also welcomed Emmy Amers to the NUSTEM team to begin her PhD at Northumbria University. Emmy’s PhD will look at role models in outreach provision and their impact on children. This month she has been working on her literature review. Emmy also delivered as successful presentation at a conference in Belgium.

As we reach the end of the calendar year, the NUSTEM team wish you all a peaceful holiday, and a happy New Year.

NUSTEM team in front of a Christmas tree










NUSTEM Annual Report 2022 – 2023

With every new year, there is a time for looking back and planning ahead.

The academic new year is the same.  Every year, the NUSTEM team spend time looking back at the work we have done over the past year, and plan our upcoming activities.

Our annual report for 2022-23 outlines just some of the work that we’ve done over the past year.

A key part of our work is to develop, deliver and enable high-quality STEM interventions for key stakeholders. This includes children and young people in 33 partner schools, their teachers and their families. The report describes some of the activities for children but also how we provide ongoing support for teachers to help them develop their teaching practice and embed STEM careers and attribute ideas into everyday lessons. We also support STEM outreach and widening participation at the university and encourage colleagues to work with primary schools in areas of deprivation in the North East.

Last year we had the priviledge of working with two cultural organisations: Life Science Centre and Northumberland Archives, and those projects are described in the report.

As well as being an outreach group, NUSTEM prides itself on the strength of research and evaluation that we also do. It’s important that we produce high quality research and evaluation on young people’s STEM learning and career choices, and share our findings with the wider STEM community.  The report also highlights our recent research about the state of career-related learning in primary schools, and two evaluations of projects with recommendations for other STEM organisations.

We hope that you enjoy reading the report, which can be found here: NUSTEM Annual Report 22_23



All primary school children should receive early careers education

We have worked together with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) to produce a report, which calls for a nationwide approach to providing careers education in primary schools.

Statutory guidance says only schools catering for pupils in Key Stage 3 (aged 11 to 14) and above need to offer careers education and guidance. However, research shows that children understand jobs exist from around the age of three or four and begin to form ideas about their futures when they are a young as five or six.

For this project we joined forces with the North East LEP who had already run a pilot project on career related learning within primary schools. Together, we have developed the report which outlines a need and willingness to provide career-related learning in primary schools using data provided by a range of teaching staff – including headteachers – and the outcomes of the pilot, known as the North East Ambition Career Benchmarks: Primary Pilot.

Some of the key findings in the report come from a survey involving over 2,000 primary school teachers in England, conducted using Teacher Tapp, a daily survey app which asks the opinions of teachers on key topics.

Key Findings

  • Only 9% of primary teachers rated their knowledge to deliver career-related learning as ‘good’ or ‘better’
  • 46% of primary teachers agreed they would value a resource toolkit for career-related learning
  • 100% of primary teachers agreed that schools ‘should help break down gender stereotypes relating to subjects and careers’
  • 53% of primary teachers aware of the Gatsby Benchmarks for Secondary education agree a similar framework would be helpful.

What this report tells us is that there is absolutely the appetite to run career-related learning in primary schools, because there’s already some fantastic work happening. However, there are many schools that could do with more support. We would like children in all schools to be able to access high-quality career-related learning from an early age.

Our report suggests that a structure is needed to help primary schools do this better and provide consistent learning across the curriculum. The adapted set of benchmarks for primary schools proposed by the North East LEP as part of its primary pilot would provide that structure, and deliver the additional support primary schools need to provide effective careers education and guidance.

Important Role of the North East in Careers-Related Learning

We are proud that North East region has been progressive in leading pilots to improve effective careers education and guidance. The initial pilot of the Good Career Guidance Benchmarks, now commonly known as ‘Gatsby’ Benchmarks within secondary education, was delivered by the North East LEP and took place in the region from 2015 to 2017.

The North East LEP has since partnered with the EY Foundation on the two-year North East Ambition Career Benchmarks: Primary Pilot, to trial career-related learning within 70 primary schools. Following the pilot, which concluded in 2021, the North East LEP has gone on to expand the number of primary schools it supports to deliver careers education and guidance from 70 to 100. It has also delivered a project with feeder schools to support pupils’ transition from primary to secondary education.

Nationally, the Department for Education has also recently funded Start Small, Dream Big, a career-related learning project involving 2,250 primary schools and 600,000 pupils, located in 55 Education Investment Areas (EIAs) across the country. In the North East, Start Small, Dream Big will support careers learning in primary schools across South Tyneside, Sunderland, and Durham.

“We know from our two-year pilot, and continuing project work, that there is an appetite here in the North East and in other areas of the UK for delivering careers related learning in primary schools. We also know the positive impact on school staff and pupils of using our adapted set of Benchmarks as a framework to support schools to design and deliver a high quality, age-appropriate careers programme. This research adds weight to the increasing evidence base that this work needs to be extended, so that we can start sowing the seeds of ambition nationally.”

Matt Joyce, Regional Lead for North East Ambition at the North East LEP

Support for this research was provided through the Capacity in Policy Engagement (CAPE) project funded by Research England. More information about CAPE, a partnership between University College London and the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Northumbria and Nottingham, in collaboration with the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology, Nesta, and the Transforming Evidence Hub, is available here.

You can read the full report, Career-related learning in primary schools – a snapshot of current practice, online here.

Evaluating sustained STEM engagements: what we wish we had known

This is a story about evaluation, why good evaluation can be really hard to achieve and what we wish we had known when we started out.

NUSTEM was originally Think Physics, and we were set up in 2014 to develop and deliver a three year project with 15 primary and 15 secondary schools.

The vision of that project was:

  • To create a holistic widening participation and gender equality scheme based on partnership working that will lead to greater uptake of physics and related disciplines by children, and particularly girls, in the North East region.
  • To build science capital in the North East region
  • To provide a blueprint for a regional scheme that can be shared with others and a sustainable scheme for the North East.

To help us achieve this vision we offered 15 partner secondary schools a three-year sustained but flexible offer: for students the offer included assemblies, class workshops, careers events, STEM clubs, informal activities, and visits to STEM activities run by other organisations, and for teachers we offered CPD.

To evaluate the project, we set up what (at the time) seemed like a fairly sensible evaluation plan.  We selected a small subsample of partner schools to become evaluation schools, and collected data from young people in Year 7, Year 9 and Year 11 in those schools at three timepoints. They were at the start in 2015 to get a baseline, then in 2017 and finally in 2019 at the end of the project.

We also used comparator groups to mitigate the effects of the development within young people as they get older. The evaluation tools we used were specifically designed to measure the science capital of young people.

However when we analysed the evaluation data in 2019 – 2020, we found that our work in the partner secondary schools had not produced the intended impacts, at least not in the evaluation schools. In fact the young people in our comparator group seemed to have higher science capital than the young people that had taken part in the programme.

Finding this, we struggled to know how best to report this result. We have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the design of our schools offer, the design of our evaluation plan, and also conducting new analysis of the implementation of the programme. In doing this we made some really useful discoveries, which we have written up  as “Evaluating a complex and sustained STEM engagement programme through the lens of science capital: insights from Northeast England” in the International Journal of STEM Education.

What did we find:

  • some of our evaluation schools didn’t do very many of the activities offered to them, or include the year groups that we were measuring in the activities;
  • there were a lot of changes in the school curriculum starting in 2015 with new GCSEs being introduced, which limited the capacity of science teachers to support extra-curricular activities;
  • it was really helpful to use a ‘science capital’ framework to design activities and to target them on potential predictors of  young people’s future participation in science;
  • it was challenging to use an outcome measure of ‘building science capital’ and trying to quantify a change in the level of science capital between the start and end of the project.

We hope our findings are useful to others evaluating STEM outreach or education programmes, particularly those with are sustained or involve multiple schools, partners and organisations. By publishing our findings in a paper, we hope also to address the critique that outreach programmes focus too often on short-term and positive findings, and help develop a constructive evaluation environment of STEM education, where educators can learn from one another and develop skills and knowledge about what works, based on robust evidence.

The paper is free to read and is available here.

Creativity Clubs – learning by doing

Last year, NUSTEM and Success 4 All, ran a year long project of after-school STEM clubs at a local community centre.  We called the project Creativity Clubs because we wanted to help young children between the ages of 4 and 8 to see the creativity that is inherent in science and technology.

The clubs were organised into 6 week blocks with a difference science or technology theme each block.  To support children’s literacy skills, as well as their science skills, we also chose a book to use for each topic.  Every child was then given a copy of the book to take home so that they could share their learning with the rest of their family.

The project was funded through a Science and Technology Facilities Council Spark Award (STFC) (ST/W002027/1). These awards fund projects focusing on areas of science within the remit of STFC and are open to a wide range of organisations. The fund encourages ‘novel approaches’ to engagement and audience. Creativity Clubs was also part of the STFC’s Wonder initiative, tailored to reach under-served communities with STFC science and technology, with the focus on working with people and reflecting on their needs and requirements for meaningful engagement.

As part of the project evaluation, the team involved in the project spent a lot of time reflecting on what we have learnt, and what we would do differently if we did it all again.  We want to share what we have learnt with other people and organisations who might want to do similar projects with young children – if only so others don’t have some of the same challenges that we did!

Our key recommendations are:

  1. Build in time to work with community centres at the design stage
  2. Investing in positive relationships with children provides a foundation for successful work
  3. Outreach and engagement should be responsive to children’s needs and interests
  4. Evaluation outcomes and strategies may need to be adapted to respond to project changes and stakeholder needs.


You can read the full report here: Creativity Clubs – Delivering equitable and effective STEM engagement in community settings.

Attributes and Aspirations: Round-up of our recent research

In September last year Carol and I had the pleasure of visiting lovely Uppsala in Sweden to attend the Frontiers in Education 2022 Conference and present the findings of our latest research. We presented papers on our two favourite topics attributes and aspirations: Carol on the self-identified attributes of STEM professionals, and me on the career aspirations and career motivations of very young children.

I thought it might be useful to share the key findings from our research.

‘People Like Me’: Identifying personal attributes of STEM Professionals

In this paper we asked STEM professionals to identify what attributes they have that make them successful in their role. We shared an online survey with STEM employees and asked them to name up to six personal attributes that they felt were essential to their being successful in their role, as well as rate how well the list of NUSTEM’s 16 STEM attributes described them.

Our key findings were that:

  • STEM professionals identified many soft skills that made them successful in their role: open-minded, communicator, curious, creative, good colleague, resilient, collaborative, tenacious, hard-working, self-motivated, patient and passionate.
  • STEM professionals identified a number of hard-skills that made them successful in their work: being logical, having domain specific knowledge (knowing about their subject or industry), having attention to detail, being observant and organised. There were also themes we called professionalism and imaginative which linked to both soft and hard skills.
  • There was good overall agreement between the attributes identified by the STEM professionals and the 16 STEM Attributes used by NUSTEM in project delivery, meaning they are a realistic representation of the attributes employees working in STEM use about themselves.

We feel because 68% of the attributes used by STEM employees can be described as soft-skills this provides a clear indication that soft skills are valued by employees in their work. We argue that, within the framing of STEM education and engagement activities, there is merit in moving beyond subject knowledge and including attributes and soft-skills. Using attributes can help children and young people identify the skills they already have or could develop, and support students to think about their employability skills.

Elimination before imagination: How children’s early understanding of scientists may limit aspirations for broader STEM careers

In this paper we examined the early understanding of science careers among very young children (aged 5-7), as well as the factors that influenced their understanding. We held 20 focus groups, interviewing children about their understanding of science and science careers. When we analysed the data we identified four categories to describe the patterns of children’s understanding of science careers. We called these categories: undeveloped, introductory, stereotypical, and diversifying.

Our key findings were that:

  • Most young children have limited understanding of scientists and what they do, and those with some knowledge rely heavily on stereotypes.
  • Young children have different factors of influence on their understanding of scientists compared with the factors identified with older children. For young children siblings and cousins, games and play activities and YouTube were identified as big influences on perceptions of scientists.
  • Young children did not commonly relate the science that they learned about in school to scientists or science-related jobs.
  • Children with more advanced understanding tended to draw on personal experiences with science or STEM professionals.

Building on this research and our other aspirations papers, we are now starting to map how children’s aspirations develop and change over their early lifecourse with focus on STEM careers.

If you would like to chat about either of these research studies, drop us a line at

Annual report published

NUSTEM’s vision is:

A vibrant and sustainable STEM sector which meets the needs of learners and employers, reflecting the diversity of wider society.


Every year at NUSTEM we spend time looking back at what we’ve accomplished in the previous academic year, in light of our vision statement.

As part of that reflection, we write an annual report.

This year’s annual report documents how NUSTEM, and schools, have responded to ‘face to face’ activities, which is with enthusiasm. We also look at how we’ve been working with other researchers within Northumbria University, and with other organisations.

If you’d like to find out more about what we’ve been doing, you can read the full report.



Exploring STEM Engagement with Engineering Students

Over the last few NUSTEM colleagues from NUSTEM have been working across the Faculty of Engineering and Environmental teaching on Foundation and Undergraduate courses. We’ve been helping students understand science communication and explored how to embed it into their educational practice. We’ve also been working closely with phd students on two of Northumbria’s Doctoral Training Partnerships: One Planet and RENU.

This year we’ve been supporting students on Northumbria’s Mechanical and Civil Engineering Foundation Year. We’ve worked with them to develop their skills in science communication and engagement with young people. Throughout their autumn module, the students have been thinking deeply about approaches to engagement, and how they might share the knowledge and understanding of sometimes complicated topics with different audiences.

Working in groups, the students designed posters which explained topics in the National Curriculum in a way that a primary school pupil audience could understand. They’ve thought carefully about their chosen topics and the two examples below are the best of an excellent set. Teachers can download them below and either print or display them on your computer to use with pupils.

Click here to download and view the posters.