5 Questions To Answer When Planning A STEM Trip

If you’re seeking to engage and develop the interest of children into Computing and/or STEM subjects you may have considered organising a trip. Here are 5 questions you should consider as part of your planning, some suggestions for alternatives to school visits as well as recommendations for places to visit.

1. Why even bother?

The single most important question to answer is “Why?”. If you can’t think of more than a few really good reasons, please – save yourself and colleagues the stress and divert your energy into some other activity instead. School visits and trips can provide for some very rewarding experiences and joyful memories, but extremely stressful.

Seriously though, if you are planning to target a large group of more than 50 pupils, consider organising an experience day at school instead. A school based experience needs much less planning in terms of risk assessments, transport co-ordination and may cost substantially less and I don’t just mean £££, I’m referring to your own sanity! I’ve written blog posts about school based experience days like Hack To The Future and Hack Jams that I’ve organised in schools [see examples] and I’m very happy to support others who want to explore hosting something similar in their community.

I’ve listed below some blog posts that I wrote to help inspire teachers and event organisers to consider the examples of events that could be organised within a school as an alternative to a trip out of school. They are presented in reverse chronological order and represent a 5 year time span, so you track how these events developed.

Alternatives to trips out of school:

A software developer working at the BBC demonstrates her work to a group of pupils

On some of the school trips and visits I organised most recently, the aims included:

  • to add contextual depth to a particular area of study, eg. the history of computers
  • to build rapport and gain a better understanding of certain pupil groups, e.g. girls you deem too self-conscious to admit their interest in STEM, digital leaders
  • as a pilot to judge how engaging a particular venue/activity was with a view to planning a larger scale activity at a later date
  • to boost levels of interest and participation within certain STEM related areas
  • to introduce pupils to inspirational role models within STEM related industries

2. When will the visit take place?

There are a balance of arguments for and against choosing both the best times of year and which days of the week to schedule a trip. You’ll probably encounter the most resistance when planning to take an exam group out on a school day in the lead up to exams, whereas taking a small group of Year 8 pupils out on a Saturday wont affect your colleagues in the same way. I certainly resented those occasions when my Year 11 pupils missed vital coursework lessons because my colleagues took them out of school on a trip to boost their chances of success in another subject area.

While you may be reluctant to sacrifice your precious weekend or holiday time to plan a trip, it’s a lot easier to facilitate a trip outside of the normal school day and if it’s a small hand-picked group of pupils it doesn’t feel like work.

3. Where will you visit?

The destination probably matters much less than you might think, as the journey can be as rewarding and fulfilling as the actual destination – especially if you’ve managed to plan it on a school day. Much like the parent who complains that their children were more content playing with the empty box than its contents, many pupils have told me the best part of a school trip was the journey!

In the hope of inspiring their pupils, some teachers have suggested visiting the offices of Google, Microsoft for example; I would strongly advise against these kind of destinations. These are great places to inspire pupils if they can secure a week’s work experience or an internship, but unless you’ve got something very special planned they are far from ideal locations to visit.

They don’t tend to cater for school visits are they are very much working environments which, apart from the odd beanbag, fire pole and slide look pretty much like any other office environment. The Mind Candy studios in Shoreditch look pretty amazing, but it’s still a work environment and would present too many risks to health and safety to make a trip viable.

At the bottom of this article, I’ve listed some suitable and recommended suggestions for a Computing/STEM trip along with associated resources, photographs etc.

Also consider organising a visit to an event like a Raspberry Jam, a Coder Dojo, Big Bang Fair or a Maker Faire.

4. How will you all get there?

The choice of transport can have an impact on your stress and enjoyment factors.

  • Minibus: The school minibus might seem obvious, but limits the options your group have to visiting some amazing locations and restricts the group size. If you’re not an approved minibus driver, that’s another thing to organise. If you’re planning a local visit for part of a school day, the minibus from a local taxi firm can swiftly take you from door to door with the minimum of disruption to the normal school day.
  • Coach: Coach travel can be a competitive alternative providing you plan to fill the coach close to capacity. There is a risk that you might spend your entire day trapped on the motorway due to a motorway closure; I’ve experienced this and it’s no fun trying to entertain 50 tired and hungry teenagers who’ve consumed sugary snacks and fizzy drinks on the hottest July day on record. I would recommend you talk to your PE and Drama colleagues as they will be able to recommend certain bus & coach options.
  • Train: Rail travel may appear to be expensive and complicated to arrange for large groups – but there are discounts available as well as free options. For example, a friend of mine is a manager for a regional rail network. With his support we were able to arrange free rail travel for trips to local cities across the region for small groups on school days. I imagine other rail networks offer something similar as part of their corporate social responsibility, or you might be able to persuade a local tech company to make a contribution towards your travel costs or pay for some Pupil Premium places.
  • Parent convoys: If it’s a holiday or weekend event in a nearby city, you may manage to persuade enthusiastic parents to organise their own convoy of transport which only leaves you to meet the pupils on arrival at the venue. This is a really smart way to reduce the burden of organising on you as well as co-opting some parent volunteers who may be sympathetic to your cause.

If you’re inexperienced at organising trips or lack the energy required – you might reduce the burden by sharing the planning and organising with a colleague from art, music or drama for example and plan a combined visit.

5. What itinerary will you plan?

Don’t expect that just by taking the pupils to a museum that you will be able to rely on collections/galleries to be enough stimulate interest; you’ll need to consider a range of activities to include in your itinerary so that the pupils are stimulated and engaged throughout the trip. There are also a number of options available to get the most potential from your trip by providing activities in the weeks leading up the visit and afterwards.

Balance and breadth: Try to remember, it’s not all about STEM, so don’t make the trip just about Computing/STEM, build in some opportunities for R&R (rest & relaxation into your trip), this is also a helpful ‘Plan B’ strategy if for example, there is an unforeseen problem with the venue, it doesn’t live up to expectations etc. When we planned a STEM trip to Science Museum London, our itinerary included a shopping trip in Knightsbridge (by the way, Harrods have strict rules about bags) where we bumped into comedian Ricky Gervais en route.

Try to design an interesting itinerary with balance and flexibility. A school visit I planned to a degree show for Games Design at a university also included a presentation by an inspiring speaker as well as opportunities for our pupils to meet with degree students. A visit to explore the technology behind white knuckle rides in Southport included some free time for pupils to explore the park in friendship groups followed up later with time in groups building models of theme park rides using paper straws and masking tape.

Activities: Visits to collections and galleries can be made even more meaningful if the group is provided with a challenge to increase their levels of motivation. You might be inspired to plan a highly focused orienteering style activity, where groups need to visit certain locations to uncover key facts, or a more open ended detective hunt where they have to collect evidence to prove a particular hypothesis. Each group might be provided with a different activity to discourage them from copying/trading answers. Rewards could include allowing the winning group the privilege of sitting on the back seat of the coach, or the table seats on the train, some treats for the journey back or a reward to be redeemed later in school.

Reconnaissance: While it’s good practice to plan a reconnaissance visit to the venue beforehand, this is not always possible or practical, some venues have virtual tours and photo galleries to aid planning. Many museums and galleries have their collections online. Other teachers willingly share experiences and tips in the online forums from their visits to popular locations. You might also consider taking a smaller control group along first which would be less stressful, to see how much they enjoy the experience and allow them to suggest improvements.

Webinar Extract: The following video clip is from a webinar where I focused on organising school trips. The sound quality drops for about 2 minutes near the start. In the video I make some suggestions about visiting Science Museum London, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester and The National Museum Of Computing.

The following places I have personally been and/or organised a visit and would not hesitate in recommending them.

Science Museum London

London’s iconic Science Museum needs no introduction, with its ever-changing exhibitions making for a fun visit. You may want to plan at least 30 minutes for your group to visit the Science Museum shop: as well as drones and pocket money souvenirs, they also have a fantastic collection of books. At peak times, the queues in the shop can be very long.

The Science Museum host regular CPD events for teachers as well, so it might be worth you subscribing to their newsletter. Also, read the “We Visit You” page.

Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester hosts ‘The Manchester Baby‘, the world’s first stored program computer, a Jacquard Loom and a handling collection where visitors can explore STEM related objects from history. They host many events and festivals throughout the year like Manchester Science Festival and Make Fest, so it’s worth registering for the email newsletters and planning ahead.

The National Museum of Computing, Bletchley

Although the National Museum of Computing is located next door to Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, they are (at the time of writing) separate entities. You could conceivably visit both on the same day or visit each on separate days. It’s largely run by volunteers who include retired engineers and hobbyists with fascinating stories they can tell about the development of Computing.

“I’ve taken a year 8 Group to Bletchley and TNMOC and it was a fantastic day. The staff there are brilliant and really want you to get the most from the day so if you contact them ahead, they will tailor your day to suit. We made it cross curricular so pupils did prep work in History, Maths, English and in IT.” -Mary, Computing Teacher

National Media Museum, Bradford

This museum has permanent collections devoted to Computing, technology and media. It’s possible to track the birth of the Internet in “Life Online”, try out some retro computer games in “Games Lounge”, develop a deeper understanding of how animations are created as well as an opportunity watch a 3D IMAX screening of a repair to the Hubble telescope.

Mozilla Festival, Saturday 29th Oct 2016-04

Not a permanent feature in London, the Mozilla Festival represents the best of the open source and online community. This annual festival hosted at Ravensbourne Media College next door to the O2 Arena (with excellent transport connections, including the Emirates Air cable car across the Thames), is a magnet for developers and educators from around the world who travel there each year. A major highlight for educators, children and families is the Science Fair on the Saturday which offers lots of really cool and amazing activities for anyone with an interest in STEM not just Computing. You could even combine the trip with a guided walk across the roof of the O2 Dome. This would definitely make for a school trip to remember.

This second list contains venues that other teachers have suggested, but I personally have no experience of visiting them:

Miles Berry has also compiled a very comprehensive list of sites to plan a Computing/STEM trip to. You’ll need to be a member of Computing At School to view the list, but membership is free. [http://community.computingatschool.org.uk/resources/1823]