Starting a STEM club in secondary school: top 10 tips

Featured image for the blog on how to start a STEM club in secondary school

I remember setting up my first STEM club. It was in the school I went to as a child and being a big school we seemed to have the numbers straight away. We started with around 8 students and grew until we had 25 turning up. They were a great bunch! We had a Christmas and end-of-school year party. I organised the sessions with another teacher and we sometimes invited teachers with a different specialism to join us to run specific sessions.

A STEM club can offer so much to your students. As well as hands-on practical experience, they encourage investigation, collaboration and discussion, especially if the activities don’t work quite as you expected! So, if you’re interested in setting up a club within your school but weren’t sure where to start, here are my top 10 tips.

Tip 1: Start with your Year 7s

In my experience, the younger students are the ones who will be the most interested. Have the new year 7’s firmly in your crosshairs. New year. New school. New STEM club. Then when a new cohort of year 7 arrive after the first year, you will have your ambassadors ready to go out and do the advertising and the rest will start to come.

Tip 2: Don’t get your Bunsen burners out too soon

I love a Bunsen burner but it can eclipse other valuable items of equipment in your lab. In fact, I wrote an appreciation of different pieces of science equipment, in an earlier blog. You can read it here.

So, keep in mind that your science lab may be the first place they will experience ‘real science’. Your young group may be imagining Bunsen burners, many-coloured bubbling liquids and vapour-emitting flasks.

Science lab image from the blog How to a STEM club'
A science lab may be the first place they will experience ‘real science’

Therefore I would suggest that you start gradually and don’t use your Bunsen-fuelled practicals at the beginning of the school year because once you get them out there seems to be no topping it. And there are so many other things that can be investigated. There are endless practicals out there!

Tip 3: Don’t forget your GCSE students

Your STEM club could offer GCSE students a masterclass, perhaps one day a week after school. Pick a required practical and they can have a go. Show them different methods of the practical and put that science element into the real world for them. Give them different ways of remembering things! Make sure it’s clear that it is open to all, not just the ones struggling, or the ones who enjoy science. A science club should be a safe place to come and get the help and the practical experience they need.

Tip 4: Plan ahead and think differently

I would have a few activities ready-to-go while the group establishes itself. And I would suggest that these are activities that avoid the curriculum completely unless your group asks! You could even have a theme. Astronaut training? The pH of everyday life? What is it made of? The science of your day. Life under a microscope. These themes could last a couple of weeks or even a term.

Ripe tomatoes image from the blog How to a STEM club'
The science of cooking is perfect when venturing into the science of everyday life

I have even branched out recently into the science of cooking so students will perfect methods for these. These ideas are nothing that they will come across in their normal school day but are all firmly grounded in science.

And don’t forget, that sometimes it is nice for them to be able to take things home. You could think about growing Christmas decoration crystals or show them how to make a 3d hologram projector.

There are loads of places on the internet and in books where you can find practical ideas. I must stress here that you must make sure to RISK ASSESS all activities as you will already be doing in class. And don’t forget you have CLEAPSS and your science technicians to ask for help too! In fact, there is a technician network on Facebook where school science techs share loads of idea, and we’ve used them successfully in our group.

Tip 5: Let the club lead the direction of the activities

STEM club image from the blog How to a STEM club'
Let your students take the lead to see where their interests lie

Don’t be afraid to take your lead from your students. If they have done something in Science that week and loved it, then get it back out! There is nothing more satisfying than seeing students understand better, or perfect a technique. Even if they don’t realise it themselves… you will see it. We did owl pellets and pond dipping for nearly a whole term this year just gone. Why? Because they asked and all of them came back. Every. Single. Time. And now they can identify living animals and even which bones would go where.

Tip 6: Practice makes perfect…or at least improve your chances of them working on the day!

If you can, practice the experiments before doing them with the students too. Not all methods are perfect or may be a different way to what you are used to. You may be using something a little different or an old chemical. There is always a chance that it won’t work so just make sure the method is right for you, and be ready to have a discussion if something doesn’t work as you’d expected. Not all activities are an hour either so plan your club accordingly. Do you need more than one practical and are they going to be related?

Tip 7: Take every opportunity to advertise the club

I’ve already touched on this briefly, but start promoting the club a couple of weeks before first meeting. This gives students time to get in touch with you, get parental permission and gear themselves up for something new. Make your advert stand out and make it relatable. For example you could include pictures of the school and lab. I would emphasise that they will not see these things in school on a normal day. That it’s a place that encourages curiousity.  You could also ask them to come to the first meeting or send in their ideas of things to do. Maybe they’ve seen something on YouTube or on TV?

Tell them what they will be doing next week, advertise it weekly. Not everything will appeal to everyone. Some weeks you will have a completely different group. Not everyone wants to do a drop the egg parachute and not everyone wants to make their own piece of glass!

Weekly adverts could relate to a career too…. ‘ this week in science, ecology focus’ then a list of careers and what the practical is.

Introduce it in assemblies, tutor time, on social media. But please: DO NOT use the mad scientist, mad hair persona. Go for real world, real science. Make it relatable and meaningful. DO use your great demonstration photos.

Tip 8: The best time to have the club is when your Year 7s are already in place!

The last thing new year 7s want to have to do is worry about finding you on the day of the club. So if they have science last period on one of the days make that the day and they are already here! Their teacher can remind them that it is on.

Image of an arrow sign
Some signage with arrows for direction to the STEM club maybe helpful

Of course, this may not be possible so have some signage with arrows around your school site so they can easily find their way.

Tip 9: Fundraise, re-purpose and apply for grants

Depending on your plans, you will find some weeks you have everything already, but for others, to really show something different, some things may need buying. And there are grants out there for this sort of thing. Royal societies and grants4schools have many opportunities available. Take a look at the list below. You could try asking the governors or the head of your school. £1000 would go a long way for something like this. The important thing to remember is to lean on your school community through fundraising or simply asking other departments and even the parents if they have things you are looking for. Don’t bin those quiche trays, you can make lightning with them… I’m serious!

Tip 10: Take it further with a CREST award

You may find that some in your group wants to take their learning even further. If so, they can do something like a CREST award. It is extra curriculum learning and is proven to raise GCSEs. As well as teaching them how to layout a project, they also get experience in how to research and plan an experiment.

The thing is, STEM isn’t for everyone but for so long it seems that science has been embedded as a thing only smart people can do. But a STEM club can go a long way in helping students see a different side to science and how they can have a place in a STEM world. Make sure that the purpose of the club is clear and accessible and that they don’t have to be Marie Curie to join! Students just need to have a spark of curiosity!

List of places that offer grants:

Read more from the Oxford Science Team: