It may seem counterintuitive, but primary school science teacher Shane Fagg said that relinquishing control has been key to engaging his students in STEM.

“You relinquish control to gain control,” said the Cleveland State School teacher, who has seen enthusiasm grow and behaviour improve as his students become more engaged in STEM through hands-on, inquiry-based learning where they are encouraged to share and test their ideas.

Inspired by his experience at STEM X 2016 and the Questacon ‘protostorming’ session – where participants were challenged to ensure their ‘bungee-jumping’ eggs did not hit the ground – Mr Fagg now encourages his students to solve problems and learn through experimentation.

This year, while studying light, rather than prescribing the concept and the answers, he asked his students to provide the evidence. “I said to them, ‘I’ve told you light travels in a straight line, but you’re all scientists, don’t just believe me, you need to prove it.’”

And in several different ways, they did. Some shone their torchlight onto a mirror on the ground, which reflected the light up to the ceiling in a perfect trajectory. Others shone the light up a metre ruler and onto a classmate’s hand.

“There were a whole variety of ways the kids achieved it,” Mr Fagg said. “And they came up with ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.”

This approach not only engaged the students but also had them actively thinking, questioning, analysing and problem-solving in the manner of actual scientists, he added. And this helps the information stick.

“You can rote learn and memorise things and tick that box on the test, but if you’ve created an experiment in your own way, you understand it,” he said.

Teaching STEM in a real-world context was the other big lesson Mr Fagg took from the STEM X program and something that comes relatively easily to him, having spent 14 years in the business world before becoming a teacher six years ago. For example, he has used his experience in occupational health and safety when teaching about natural disasters to have students become risk assessors for a virtual tropical tourist resort, deciding what scientific tools they would need and tests they would undertake.

Connecting students to the way STEM is used in the world is vital to their comprehension of it, he says. And this was something that was emphasised at STEM X through presentations by the Space Environment Research Centre (SERC) on its work to counter space junk. “It showed us, and therefore our students, that they can be part of the solution to the problems the world will face, through science,” said Mr Fagg, who plans to use SERC in his teaching of astronomy.

“It can be challenging to relinquish control but giving students the opportunity to discover their own solutions brings great rewards,” he said. “You plant the seed but you don’t know what direction they are going to take it and that’s exciting.”