Going for Gold: from classroom project to international competition

In September 2017, we received an invitation from Cambridge International to join the pilot for their Cambridge Upper Secondary Science Competition.

After reviewing the teacher guide, it was clear that the competition bore a close resemblance to the STEM project programme that we had run at Westlake International School (WIS) over the past three years. Without hesitation, I signed my school up!

The competition is for students aged 14 to 16 years, and involves working in teams (3 to 6 students per team). Students conduct and record an investigation, on a topic of their choice, and present their findings to their peers. Students are marked for the investigation itself as well as for communication and teamwork. All participating teams receive a Bronze, Silver or Gold certificate.

We have used scientific inquiry-based projects at WIS since 2015. Initially, they were just one of our methods for formative assessment, but over time they became interdisciplinary projects, bringing in subjects like Mathematics, English, and Global Perspectives.

We chose to run the Cambridge Upper Secondary Science Competition with our Cambridge IGCSE students because we wanted to strengthen their ability to synthesise scientific findings by developing deep thinking and problem-solving processes.

Opportunities for experiential learning and for students to voice their own opinions can be scarce in local schools. Often the students that we nurture in WIS can be passive, waiting to absorb information from teachers with the sole objective of passing their exams. We are tackling this at WIS and champion the key skills necessary for students to succeed during their time with us, and beyond.

The time was right

When the invitation to join the Cambridge Upper Secondary Science Competition Pilot arrived, my team and I felt affirmed that we were on the right track in introducing a ‘mini thesis’ type project to our Cambridge IGCSE students.

In the past students frequently questioned why they should put so much effort into our own STEM project if it did not help in their Cambridge IGCSE examinations. Participating in the official Pilot for a formal Cambridge Upper Secondary Science Competition served as a recognition platform for my students, both locally and internationally, which elevated the status of their work.

It was very easy to adapt the work we had already done for our STEM project to fit the competition format.
I mapped the competition’s features into our STEM projects, so that students could kill two birds with one stone – accomplishing an achievement in the school’s formative STEM assessments as well as gaining a formal Bronze, Silver or Gold certificate in the Cambridge Upper Secondary Science Competition.

We set several checkpoints for the students before the actual presentation and portfolio submission to allow opportunities to give them feedback and advice.

We used the following approach:

1. Students sort themselves into groups.

2. Students discuss and provide a hypothesis and the methodology they will use to gather data.

3. Students submit a first draft of results in data form with records of their work-in-progress.

4. Students deliver their presentation and write up their conclusion and reflection sections before submitting the final portfolio.

We wanted our students to be in control of the investigation themselves, allowing them to choose the procedures that they believed would provide reliable results. These first two stages are essential to get them off to a confident start.

It was essential to provide an open platform for discussion and feedback. My role as teacher was to ensure that they found a balance between being too ambitious (with the resources and period that they had) or too unimaginative (and not challenging themselves appropriate to their ability level).

In stage 3 we looked to simulate what the students know and enjoy about ‘what scientists normally do’ in science fiction movies they have enjoyed, like The Martian or Avatar, where they have seen scientists recording their findings in logs on a daily basis. Each group logged their investigation in progress and shared with their mentor.

Apart from the preliminary briefing where we explained the project, much of the students’ work, including data collecting and portfolio writing, took place outside of the classroom.

For the most part, groups ran their data collection processes independently with minimum supervision. The project formed part of a cross-disciplinary formative assessment – our Maths teachers came in to mentor and assess on the data presentation and cost estimation charting.

Benefits for teachers and students

Our school thoroughly enjoyed participating in this competition pilot and we experienced countless invaluable learning moments throughout the process. It was a great collaborative activity for us as teachers, as well as for the students!

There was a noticeable improvement in the students’ grasp of key Cambridge IGCSE concepts related to variable manipulation and data plotting, but I believe the greatest takeaway for the students was the total ownership they had over their project. Furthermore, they could not have been more proud to receive a formal certificate from Cambridge International.

From joy-filled chats along the school corridors to the proud showcase of each project in our ‘STEM Exhibition’, it has been a truly delightful journey for every learner and teacher who took part.

Isn’t that what matters the most in a competition?

The Cambridge Upper Secondary Science Competition launched in September 2018. To find out more information and to enter for 2018/2019 visit our website.

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