Making science fun … 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

british-science-weekBritish Science Week 2017 is in full swing and the theme this year is change. Whether it’s climate change or the changing seasons, transformative new materials or energy, there are changes happening all around us, all of the time. And British Science Week is also a chance to encourage young people to consider the changes they can enact to have a positive impact on the future. This may include choosing a career in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Getting children and young people interested in STEM can be tricky, though. The British Science Week website includes lots of resources, and this year is promoting a citizen science ‘penguin-spotting’ project. Parents can also help, and what better way for kids to learn about STEM than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device?

There are some great examples of apps and computer-based games to help young people explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products.

We’ve highlighted some of these below – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look, be inspired and think about using them in school or at home.


Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

The research for this blog was originally done by April Bowman, who joined us in July 2016 for a voluntary work experience placement, while studying for a Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism was education policy and teaching practice.

Read some of our other blogs on education:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Girls with autism – a hidden issue?

Three young girls hanging upside down in a park and laughing

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last month, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) held its Big Shout conference in London. The event gathered together school leaders, health and education experts, parents, carers and women on the autistic spectrum with the intention of raising awareness of the ‘underdiagnosis of thousands’ of girls with autism.

Gender difference in diagnosis

The National Autistic Society points to various studies that estimate the ratio of male/female autism diagnosis as being anywhere from 2:1 to 16:1. Last year, the National Association of Special Educational Needs (nasen) published a guide to supporting girls with autism spectrum conditions which states that the ratio is typically regarded as 4:1. The guide notes that this is an average figure, and that the ratio increases to 10:1 among intellectually able individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and shrinks to 2:1 for groups with ASD and moderate to severe learning disabilities.

Nasen suggests that this gender difference has only recently been questioned, and points to several possible explanations for the variation:

  • Gender bias in existing screening and referral processes, diagnostic criteria and tools
  • Protective and compensatory factors in females
  • Different gender-specific autism spectrum condition (ASC) profiles

Nasen points to research going back as far as 1944 which found that while the girls who took part in the research displayed signs that were “reminiscent of autism”, they were not as “fully formed” as those seen in the boys.

As noted by Francesca Happé of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London, diagnostic systems, as well as research studies and stereotypes of ASD, are still based on the experiences of males to this day. Despite evidence which indicates differences between girls’ and boys’ social-communication skills – an important factor in the diagnosis of ASD – girls are being assessed using a system that is biased towards the opposite gender.

The only specialist state school in the UK

Limpsfield Grange school in Surrey is the only state school for girls with autism in the UK. Headteacher Sarah Wild believes that girls can often go undiagnosed due to their tendency towards ‘masking’. She suggests that autistic girls are often more interested in socialising and building relationships than their male peers, and learn to copy the behaviour of those around them from an early age as a coping strategy.

Nasen makes a similar point with regards to the topics that girls with autism can become obsessive about, which is often a neurological sign of autism. Girls’ special interests can tend to materialise in areas such as boybands, or looking after animals – interests that don’t seem out of the ‘ordinary’ for their age group. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on technical, niche topics that can make diagnosis more straightforward.

Sarah Wild is not a fan of the word ‘diagnosis’ when it comes to autism, which she thinks “makes it sound like cancer” or another illness. As opposed to US schools which focus on “curing”, Limpsfield Grange employs a ‘hybrid’ model that focuses on moving away from the medical model and towards the social integration model in place in Australia.

Taking action

As the only school of its kind in the UK, Limpsfield Grange recognises its important role in raising awareness of females with autism. The school has published two novels that follow the journey of an autistic girl called M, and made a documentary that was shown on ITV in 2015.

Speaking at the Big Shout, Professor Francesca Happé said that “Unless we change our male stereotypes of autism, and find out much more about female autism, girls will continue to miss out on the recognition and support in childhood that could have helped them to understand themselves and interact with others, to fulfil their potential.”

Her words were echoed by Professor Barry Carpenter, Chair of the Autism and Girls Forum, who said that action from politicians and researchers in this area was “desperately needed”.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on children and young people.

Talking to children about poverty: why education needs to get in on the act

boy with bear

1 in 5 children in poverty

Scotland has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the UK. The latest figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that 1 in 5 children in Scotland live in poverty, with the figure rising to 1 in 3 in the urban centre of Glasgow. With more and more families falling into relative poverty and the numbers of working poor rising, the newly branded “JAMs” (just about managing) are, in some cases not managing, having to decide between heating their house or feeding their families.

People are affected by poverty in many different ways. For adults it can lower self-esteem, increase levels of stress, and can have consequences for mental and physical health. However, it’s sometimes forgotten that many children can feel these same effects from growing up in a family living in poverty.

In the same way as adults, many children suffer from low self-esteem and feel the invisible burden of the stigma that the label of “poverty” places on them. In addition, children affected by poverty:

  • are more likely to be victims of bullying;
  • tend to have lower attainment at school;
  • have fewer social networks or groups of friends;
  • suffer from poorer physical and mental health;
  • have less chance of leaving school with a full set of qualifications and going on to further or higher education (despite the best efforts of various governments to change this); and
  • are more likely than “affluent children” to spend their adulthood in poverty too.

How children understand poverty

Many children have an understanding of poverty as meaning “poor” or lacking in money. Concepts such as heating a home, building personal debt or not being able to afford to travel to work are not things they yet associate as being part of the cost of living, despite many of them seeing their own parents face these struggles on a weekly basis.

They associate poverty with foreign, particularly third world nations, as well as with homelessness, loneliness, a lack of familial support and a reliance on donations. Many children, even from the poorest backgrounds do not recognise themselves as being in poverty. This is something highlighted in research conducted by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII), which looked at child perceptions of poverty, and expressing these through alternate methods such as art.

In the study, children from schools in less affluent areas of Glasgow and Aberdeen were surveyed and many regarded notions of poverty as a distant, “third world” concept. However, when they were engaged in more creative methods, such as drama, or art, expressions of their experiences of poverty became more acute.

School children raising hands. View from behind.

Engaging education professionals in the poverty discourse

In Scotland, the overarching framework of Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) is designed to bring services and professionals with whom children come into contact closer together to create a complete model of care for a child. It is interesting that in the latest commitment to tackling child poverty in Scotland there is no commitment to including teachers or education in general, in the same way as health professionals or social workers.

We know that poverty can have an adverse impact on wellbeing and on learning, and that children who live in poverty are more likely to be absent from school. However, education professionals are largely excluded from the discussions which child welfare officers, social workers, doctors and third sector colleagues are already having around the health and wellbeing of children who are living in poverty.

In a practical sense schools do, to a degree, already engage in reducing the impact of child poverty by providing financial and practical help. This could include subsidies for school meals or trips, the donation of free uniforms, breakfast clubs and tutoring after school classes. There have even been cases of individual teachers giving children clean clothes, meals or allowing them to sleep in the staff room at break and lunchtimes to allow them to catch up on sleep lost because of a disruptive lifestyle at home. However, talking about poverty with children is often neglected. This is something that academics are keen to see schools do more of – use their position to engage children in talking about poverty in order to help identify children at risk, but also to help raise the issue with other children who may not have experienced it or know what it is.

Using creative methods in schools to talk about poverty

Many academics argue that statistics on attainment can be misleading – while poverty has a significant impact, it does not correlate directly to cognitive ability. As one researcher at a seminar suggested, “just because you were born poor does not mean you were born without the ability to learn”. While there is evidence to suggest the slower development of children who live in poverty is acute in the early years, there is also evidence that the attainment gap is closing – what children in poverty miss out on is opportunity, variation and experience, and a chance to develop, rather than having lower overall cognitive function. This is one of the reasons, academics argue, it is so vital to engage teachers in wider discussions on child poverty.

For example, the vocabulary of children in poverty is often smaller in range than that of their more affluent peers. But, rather than this being the result of reduced cognitive function, researchers have found that this is primarily because they have not had the need to learn new words. Unlike children from more affluent backgrounds, they tend to remain within their community unit, using more colloquial language and a more limited number of words; they also often have less access to books or exposure to cultural experiences. That is not to say that they could not learn or have learnt all of the words that a child from a more affluent area knows; it’s just that they have not had the need or the opportunity to learn them yet. With this in mind, alternative methods of communication such as art, dance and storytelling could prove useful in explaining poverty to children, and helping them to discuss their experiences and understanding of what it means to be in poverty.

künstlermaterial

Using creative ways of communicating and engaging with children has already been found useful in helping them to talk about other issues personal to them, such as trauma or abuse. Researchers from the Scottish University Insight Institute-funded research team employed similar methods, using art, drama and play to help children express their feelings on poverty, and how it could be tackled in their communities. Children acted out scenarios, wrote poems, and created a number of pieces of tactile artwork, including sculptures and drawings. It was thought that these same methods could be used by teachers as a way to allow children to communicate their feelings about poverty and express issues relating to their own personal experiences without feeling stigmatised or singled out by other members of the class.

It is clear that the education profession has an important role, not only in helping to alleviate the effects of poverty on children through schemes like breakfast clubs, but also in a teaching and learning role. Many teachers and schools are averse to raise issues of money or poverty with children for fear of placing unnecessary distress onto children. However, sensitive and context-aware teaching on the issues around poverty should be seen as an opportunity, not a burden to teachers.

Effective discussion could go a long way to helping children to open up about experiences of poverty and also help them to be more understanding of other children who are living in poverty, reducing stigma and encouraging positive action within their local communities.


This blog reflects on research from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute and seminar participation at the Centre for Child Well-being and Protection at the University of Stirling.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other article on arts based practice with children.

Coding in Glasgow’s public libraries

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the annual CILIPS Autumn Gathering take place in Glasgow. CILIPS is the Scottish branch of the professional body for librarians and information professionals in the UK (CILIP). The Autumn Gathering provides professionals in Scotland with an opportunity to get together to discuss issues and trends within the sector and share best practice.

The day saw a range of sessions alongside two keynote addresses from Marc Lambert, CEO of the Scottish Book Trust, and Diane Bruxvoort from the University of Aberdeen. One of the most interesting talks I attended was given by Martin Goodfellow, who is the Coder in Residence at Glasgow Life. Martin previously worked on the Future Makers project, providing 5-17 year olds in Glasgow with the opportunity to learn digital making skills. The project was made possible due to the city winning Innovate UK’s Future Cities Demonstrator competition, and £24m in funding to explore ways to improve the city and the quality of life for its residents through technology.

For the uninitiated, Martin explained that coding=programming. It’s a form of computational thinking: something we all use in everyday life, e.g. in deciding when to stop looking for something, be it when shopping or looking for information.

Coding in Libraries

Martin’s remit is to support the creation of coding clubs in Glasgow’s public libraries. Glasgow is the first library service in the UK to have a Coder in Residence, and Martin is based at the city’s Mitchell Library, which has its own Digital Making Space and recently opened Scotland’s first Google Digital Garage.

In partnership with CoderDojo Scotland and Virgin Media, the first Glasgow coding club was set up in the Mitchell’s Digital Making Space. The club hosts regular CoderDojo events, and the clubs have started to roll out to several of Glasgow’s local libraries.

The events are aimed at young people aged 8-17 and operate democratically, in that there is no set curriculum in place at the clubs. Instead, participants work on their own projects or suggest ideas for the club to take part in. Martin described some of the projects the club have been involved in, noting that these are sometimes in collaboration with other cultural events in Glasgow. For example, during the last Celtic Connections festival, some of the young coders were involved in building a program that saw Scotland the Brave remixed using various different effects. He also showed off a 3D printed Mitchell Library created by the club in Mindcraft as part of the BBC’s Build it Scotland event, which is to be included in a forthcoming visual map of Scotland.

Making not consuming

Martin explained that club had used Sonic Pi in order to create the music program. This is just one of the software packages that participants can access at the clubs, alongside tools including Raspberry Pi and Scratch. He also demonstrated one of the outcomes of the club’s use of Twine, which had resulted in the creation of a ‘choose your own adventure’ style game, which sees players either going from the Mitchell to a secret Biffy Clyro gig, or missing out on the gig, depending on their choices.

Here, Martin placed an emphasis on public libraries being seen as not only a space where people can use technology to access resources, but also learn how to use technology: digital making, not just digital consumption. This is similar to the makerspace movement in libraries, which we looked at on the blog last month.

Teaching children how to code is part of the gamificiation of education trend, which takes concepts that children are used to in video games and uses these to support educational attainment. Gamification in general is a key trend at the moment, as seen in apps like Pokémon Go which is suggested to produce physical health benefits for players.

Martin highlighted that the clubs have worked with the STEMnet Ambassador programme, in which people volunteer to support and encourage young people to participate in, and enjoy, STEM subjects, both in and outside of the school setting. With the UK facing an estimated shortfall of 40,000 STEM workers per year (often blamed on societal stereotypes which can discourage certain groups  particularly girls   from studying STEM subjects), the work that the programme and initiatives like the coding clubs do is vital.

The future

The fact that there has been no real need to promote the coding clubs in Glasgow beyond using social media shows that young people are interested in STEM subjects, if they are presented in a way that is enjoyable and accessible to them. Martin spoke about Glasgow’s participation in National Coding Week last month, during which the clubs hosted a range of events including intergenerational sessions, which saw parents come in and learn from their kids about coding. The idea of ‘teaching an adult to code’ is one that is hoped to be continued in the coding clubs. The other key aims include having a club running in every one of the city’s public libraries, expanding the clubs into schools, and ensuring their sustainability.

If you liked this, you might like our other posts on STEM and digital participation:

Grandparents – the ‘hidden army’ of kinship carers

mamy and the little boy

By Heather Cameron

Tomorrow is the International Day of Older Persons, designated by the United Nations in order to recognise the important contributions made by older people, while raising awareness of the issues of ageing.

Today there are around 600 million people aged 60 years and over world-wide. A number that is set to double by 2025 and reach 2 billion by 2050.

With people living longer and healthier lives, it is not surprising older people are playing a considerably more active and increasingly important role in society. Not least when it comes to contributing to the care of their grandchildren.

Extent of kinship care

Kinship care – when children are brought up by relatives or family friends in the absence of their parents – has grown markedly in recent years.

It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 grandparents and other relatives are raising children who are unable to live with their parents. Common reasons cited for this include abuse and neglect, parental illness or disability, parental substance misuse, domestic violence or death of a parent.

In examining the prevalence of kinship care, drawing on census data, a recent University of Bristol study found that there has been a 7% increase in the kinship child population in England since 2001 – more than three times that of the population growth rate of all children in England, which was 2% over the same time period.

The study also found that one in two (51%) children were growing up in households headed by grandparents.

Positive outcomes

With regard to the children in kinship care, research suggests that they do ‘significantly better than children in care’, both emotionally and academically.

Indeed, a recent study on the educational outcomes of looked after children found that children in long-term foster or kinship care made better progress than children in other care settings.

The largest kinship carer survey in the UK, conducted by Family Rights Group, also highlights the effectiveness of kinship care in preventing children entering or remaining within the care system, to the benefit of both the child and the public purse. The data found that 56% of children had come to live with the kinship carer straight from the parents’ home, with 27% having been in unrelated foster care.

The caring contribution of grandparents has also been shown to have made a material difference to maternal rates of employment.

And as 95% of children being raised in kinship care are not officially ‘looked after’, billions of pounds are saved each year on care costs.

But while benefiting the public purse, and despite evidence that kinship children have better outcomes, many kinship families face a financial burden. The University of Bristol study found that 40% of all children in kinship care in England were living in households located in the 20% of the poorest areas in England (an improvement of only 4% since 2001), and three quarters (76%) of kinship children were living in a deprived household.

Impact on grandparents

As there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to make provision for kinship carers and no automatic right to child benefit, many receive no formal support; leading to financial hardship, and the stress that comes with it.

Many kinship carers have had to give up work or reduce their working hours, either permanently or temporarily. And this is often their main source of income.

A study from Grandparents Plus on discrimination against kinship carers found that of the 77% of grandparents that have asked for professional help, only 33% received the help they needed. And 30% said they didn’t receive any support at all.

The study also found that, overall, kinship carers score ‘significantly below average’ when it comes to their wellbeing.

Other recent research has suggested that regular and occasional care for grandchildren can impact on the mental health of grandparents. The findings indicated that ten additional hours of childcare per month increases the probability of developing depressive symptoms by 3.0 and 3.2 percentage point for grandmothers and 5.4 to 5.9 percentage points for grandfathers.

Policies that substitute informal with formal childcare, it argued, could improve the mental wellbeing of grandparents.

Of course there are positive impacts on grandparents too, many of whom find caring for grandchildren rewarding and who enjoy closer relationships with them, which can in turn have a positive effect on their health. As the research suggests:

the effect of grandchild care provision on grandparents’ health seems to depend on its intensity, the cultural context, as well as on its stability and change.”

Final thoughts

It is clear that grandparents play an increasingly vital role in family life. But it seems this role is in need of greater recognition and support, if society is to continue to benefit from this ‘hidden army’ of kinship carers.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on the economic opportunities of an ageing society, published on last year’s International Day of Older Persons.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Pokémon Go for health improvements?

poke cropped

by Stacey Dingwall

Due to the number of headlines, stories and anecdotes it’s generated, you would be forgiven for thinking that Pokémon Go had been around for months. In fact, the app only officially launched in the UK on the 14th of July, following its initial rollout a week before in the US, Australia and New Zealand. In amongst reports of players straying onto private property, construction sites and train tracks, as well as criminals and police forces using the game’s lure function to their advantage, have been suggestions that the app has real potential to improve the health and fitness of its players.

Transformed from its 90s incarnation of a trading cards game into a GPS powered app, Pokémon Go nevertheless retains its main aim: gotta catch ‘em all. Pokémon appear to players – trainers as they are known in the game – as they move around their area. Crucially, some Pokémon are only available in certain areas (or continents!), meaning that trainers will not be able to achieve the game’s objective unless they move around further than their immediate location.

Gotta catch the…health benefits?

This is where the potential health benefits lie. The first player to catch them all (or all of those available in his country, at least), Roberto Vazquez told journalists that his quest had led to him walking 165 miles (12-25 per day), losing 25lbs in the process. Plastic surgeons Clinic Compare have even managed to calculate how many Pokémon the average person would have to catch in order to lose weight, by comparing the number of calories burned per hour with the average amount of time it takes players to catch a single Pokémon. For example, according to their estimates, it would take 16.27 days for a 165lb female playing the game for 43 minutes each day to lose 1lb, while jogging at a speed of five miles per hour.

It has also been suggested that the app has the potential to help children meet their recommended physical activity levels, without even realising it. With evidence indicating that children are only almost half as likely to want to play outdoors than their parents did at their age, choosing to stay indoors and watch TV or play video games instead, it could be argued that Pokémon Go presents the perfect opportunity to combine indoor and outdoor play.

What does the evidence say?

It’s important to acknowledge that these examples are either anecdotal or based on averages not actually generated by the app itself. While it’s still too early to collect reliable statistics on the game’s potential health impact, qualified medical professionals have stated their belief that it may be a force for good. In an editorial for the BMJ, Glasgow-based GP Margaret McCartney notes the potential for Pokémon Go and similar apps to “make the streets an active, reclaimed playground”, which she describes as a “tantalising side effect” of an app that is not specifically marketed as having the potential to positively impact on players’ health and wellbeing.

Pokémon Go is not the first entertainment-based game to have caught the eye of professionals and policymakers due to its potential for promoting physical activity. Evaluations of Nintendo Wii Fit, for example, have suggested that regular use has the potential to have a positive impact on different groups of people, including those with MS. Regular use is obviously essential in order to generate reliable evidence of whether or not Pokémon Go can have any genuine impact on health and wellbeing. Although cynics may argue that the app is just another fad that will soon die down, the data suggests it’s here to stay for at least the foreseeable future, with 6.1 million trainers in Britain alone, 87% of which were still playing a week after downloading.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our profile of 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils.

Introducing 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

Guest blog by April Bowman

Originally from Kansas, USA, April taught elementary school children before coming to Scotland to continue her academic study. She is currently in her final semester of study of the Master’s in Public Policy  programme at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism has been education policy and teaching practice. April joined our Knowledge Exchange team for two weeks in July on a voluntary work experience placement.


What better way for kids to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device? There are some great examples of apps and computer-based programs to help students explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products. I thought it would be useful to to highlight some of these – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look and think about using them in school or at home.

Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

Read some of our other blogs on digital skills:

Members of the Idox Information Service can also read the In Practice research briefing written by April, looking at the teaching of STEM subjects in UK schools for more information on using digital platforms in teaching.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Secure care in Scotland: measuring outcomes and sharing practice

By Rebecca Jackson

There are five centres which offer secure care in Scotland, with around 100 of Scotland’s most vulnerable children and young people placed within these units. Placements happen if they are deemed to be a risk to themselves, or others, within their communities, and it is felt that they can only be managed effectively within a secure care setting. These placements are arranged via the courts or the children’s hearing system.

 

National Secure Care Project

In 2014 the Scottish Government granted funding to the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ) for a fixed term project to build on the work of the Securing our future initiative (SOFI) report in 2009. The SOFI report was a comprehensive analysis of the secure care estate in Scotland. It made recommendations for future practice in secure care and also suggested ways that the system could be made more efficient and young person centred. These included implementing and embedding the Getting It Right for Every Child approach and making full use of the Children’s Hearing and Early Years frameworks, including the SHANARRI indicators on well-being.

A scoping study was completed by CYCJ in 2015 which considered the current legislative and academic frameworks, as well as current practices of the 5 centres of secure care in Scotland. This followed the streamlining and takeover by Scotland Excel in 4 of the centres and Edinburgh City Council in the other.

The scoping study report, along with the project plan, highlights the aims and objectives of this new national programme:

  • identifying and promoting current best practice
  • identifying and exploring alternatives to secure care
  • building capacity within the secure care sector to draw comparisons and learn from the rest of the UK (and from each other)

Other key issues that the studies identified as needing to be addressed included:

Outcomes in secure care

One of the key issues raised by academics, policy makers and practitioners within secure care is the concept of outcomes. It’s been suggested that there is a need for both individual outcome targets for each child within secure care but also for a wider framework of general agreed outcomes to allow for better comparison between centres, which it is hoped will help raise standards of practice.

It is also recognised that long term, as well as the immediate, outcomes need to be assessed and researched. This ties in with the need for more emphasis on transitionary care and support. Although there is an expectation that local social workers will follow up on behalf of the secure care units, this isn’t always the case.

Key questions also have to be addressed from within the sector itself with regards to:

  • what are the aims of the centres
  • what exactly is meant by positive outcomes
  • what counts as an outcome
  • how can we look at a child or young person and say that a certain objective has been met, and can this be attributed to any one particular event, intervention or placement

These questions are not unique to the secure care sector but they do need addressed. Similarly there needs to be a wider acceptance that there are multiple outcomes and that these can be in terms of quality of life, process or change outcomes.

Sharing best practice and using staff as “knowledge brokers”

There is concern among practitioners and academics that, as a result of the changes to secure care provision implemented in 2014, secure care units are now reluctant to collaborate and share best practice.

The nature of the new secure care framework agreement means that, despite being referred to as a “secure care network”, the five centres are now in effect “in competition with one another” for individuals to be placed with them.

There is a risk that this constrains the sharing of best practice, ultimately reducing the collective standard of all five centres and therefore reducing the standard of care afforded to some young people. This was particularly highlighted in the 2015 CYCJ scoping report.

One of the key ways to share information and best practice is to allow the people who work within the centres, working with residents on a day to day basis, a platform to discuss and contribute to a wider discussion of best practice outside of their own individual centre.

Another potentially useful strategy would be to integrate approaches from traditional social work with regards to sharing ideas and information. This may also make it easier for social workers within and outside the secure care context to liaise with one another. Using staff members as “knowledge brokers” could be an efficient and effective way to allow staff to communicate best practice. Tools such as a digital platform, interactive app or online forum could help staff to share their experiences.

With the project scheduled to run until 2017, some of the issues highlighted here were discussed at an event hosted by CYCJ and WithScotland at the University of Strathclyde in April 2016. The hope is to increase collaboration and move the provision of care and creation of successful and useful outcomes frameworks forward as part of the wider National Secure Care Project.


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Mindfulness in schools: does it work?

by Stacey Dingwall

Over the last couple of years, the concept of being mindful has almost become a buzzword. However, mindfulness has actually been around since the 16th century, before being developed as a modern day western Buddhist practice from the 1970s.

Transform your life?

On the 17th of March, along with almost 400 other people, I attended the Transform Your Life event at Glasgow’s Trades Hall. The event was organised by the Kadampa Meditation Centre (KMC) in Glasgow, a Buddhist temple which opened in 2013 with the aim of providing a space for people to learn how to meditate and practise Buddhism.

The talk was delivered by Gen Dao, a senior Kadampa teacher who has been ordained for over 20 years, teaching at centres in America and Australia before taking up her current post as principle teacher at KMC Liverpool. Its focus was on equipping attendants with the ability to cope with everyday stresses and anxieties, by applying some simple meditation and mindfulness techniques.

After demonstrating a basic breathing technique, Gen Dao opened her talk by commenting on how prevalent mindfulness has become, noting that it is now used as a management technique and as a means of selling women’s magazines. She spoke about the benefits of using mindfulness not only on a personal level, but also how actively improving your mind can awaken the potential to bring benefit to others. Mindfulness, she explained, was essentially just remembering to breathe, and trying to focus on experiencing only positive states of mind.

The remainder of Gen Dao’s talk concentrated on the importance of mastering the ability to ‘oppose’ negative thoughts, and making the decision to be content and happy, without the intervention of others. Also highlighted was the need to strive for ‘patient acceptance’, or the ability to give up on the feeling that things in your life should be different – instead, we should learn how to view our feelings from a more detached perspective, and not identify with painful feelings, or “bad weather” in the mind.

Speaking to Gen Dao after the talk, I raised the point that, although not a physical pursuit, mindfulness is something that you have to train in, and learning to adapt to a new way of thinking is something that could take some time. Essentially, adopting a mindful outlook could mean changing the habits of a lifetime.

Mindfulness in the classroom

This could explain why some schools are now incorporating mindfulness exercises into classes, in order to prepare young people for the future. Last July, BBC News reported on the first large-scale trial of mindfulness exercises in schools across the UK conducted by the Wellcome Trust, during which researchers will look at whether introducing mindfulness at an early age can help build psychological resilience. The exercises, which will include deep breathing and a practice called ‘thought buses’ in which participants will be taught to see their thoughts as buses that they can either get on or allow to pass by, are designed to show children how to live in the present and eventually, equip them with the ability to solve problems while under stress.

The study will involve around 6,000 children and young people; a considerably larger amount than have taken part in previous evaluations of the impact of mindfulness in schools. While the existing evidence is currently described as limited, these smaller studies have indicated that mindfulness interventions with children and young people do have some success in generating lower stress levels and a greater sense of wellbeing among participants. These findings are important, given that a recent survey of school leaders by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 55% of respondents reported a significant increase in the number of young people in their schools who are dealing with anxiety and stress.

Case study: Mindfulness in Schools Project

The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) was founded in 2007 by former teachers Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen. Having experienced the benefits of mindfulness themselves, they developed “.B”, a 9-week course that aims to make mindfulness accessible, and fun, for secondary school pupils. The course, which has also been adapted for younger children as Paws B, is now being taught in twelve countries, including the UK. Teachers and pupils who have used the programme report on its ability to restore calm to a class after break, for example, or to calm pupils down at times of particular stress, such as exams or performances. It has also been suggested that the programme can help to improve pupils’ ability to concentrate.

Critics of the impact of mindfulness in the classroom argue that these results cannot be relied on, due to the experiments taking place outside of the boundaries of a randomised controlled trial. They also point to the possibility that participants’ ability to concentrate may only have improved due to their being informed that this is what the exercises are designed to do. Richard Burnett has openly recognised the limits of mindfulness himself, emphasising that it cannot replace the fact that some people require medication and clinical care to deal with their condition, and is more effective in smaller groups supervised by medically trained professionals. Trainers delivering the programme are also open about the fact that mindfulness is not something that will work for every child. What it can do, however, is provide a reminder to breathe when things get too much – something that can surely only be a positive for everyone.

If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on mental health issues:

Digital childhoods: what technology means for the development of children

By Rebecca Jackson

The recent advancement of technology in society has been fast and significant. Young adults who were children themselves less than 15 years ago have admitted that, even to them, the difference in ‘childhood’ as they remember it and how it appears to be today is stark. And for many older members of the public, the advances have made ‘childhood’ almost unrecognisable. The Scottish Universities Insight Institute is currently running a series of seminars looking at digital technology across the life course, one of which considered the role of technology in relation to young children.

Creative Commons,Ty, 2007

Image by Ty via Creative Commons

Common misconceptions

The debate around the use of digital technology by children is fraught with hearsay and sometimes distorted reporting of statistics in the mainstream media. This has resulted in confusion about what it means to be digitally literate, and an emphasis on the negative views that people have about children using technology.

These are some of the most common misconceptions as identified by a group of researchers from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute:

  • Digital technology is just laptops and computers: When many people refer to ‘digital technology’ they talk about laptops, tablet computers and desktops. In fact, the term covers a far wider range of devices and activities. This includes cameras, video games consoles, streaming music or listening to an mp3 player or iPod, using Skype or FaceTime to communicate, mobile phones, streaming videos on youtube and watching TV or DVDs.
  • Less affluent socioeconomic groups don’t have access to digital technology: While academics commented that their study showed there may not have been as many devices in lower income households, most still had access to mobile phones, televisions, the internet, a games console, an interactive toy, an mp3 player or IPod, camera or a tablet computer.
  • Children engaging with digital technology comes at the expense of ‘traditional play’: Studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, children still have more access to, and spend more time playing with, ‘traditional toys’ such as dolls, cars, soft toys and outdoor equipment. The study also highlighted that children use digital experiences to inform their own imaginative play. They were observed acting out scenes or engaging with imaginary characters from films or television programmes and pretending to use laptops and mobile phones during play, rather than using them directly.
  • Children know more about digital technology than adults: Children don’t know anything until they are exposed to it – much of children’s exposure comes from parents and is representative of the use by other family members. A study also showed that if a child was completing an activity using digital technology (a video game for example) which they found too difficult or “fiddly” then this could deter them from using technology in the future.
  • Children using digital technology are more socially isolated and reclusive: This is a common stereotype which is normally directed at older children and adolescents. However children of all ages have been found to use digital technology as a facilitator of social relationships. This includes the use of websites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the use of Skype and FaceTime to communicate with overseas relatives or friends.
Creative Commons,Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira, 2012

Image by Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira via Creative Commons

Blended learning

Many academics who study the impact of digitisation on children (or people in general) highlight the unhelpful nature of the “good/bad” debate.  As one researcher at a recent conference held at Strathclyde University stated: “Blended learning – a combination of digital and traditional learning – is best for children and their development; quite often in studies we have found that children do this naturally themselves.”

Examples of this which were given was a child acting out a scene from the Disney film Frozen with soft toys, once they had seen the film on the television. Others could include printing out characters from films or TV shows to colour in with pencil or crayon, and children using a camera to capture memories or take photos of things which are interesting to them while outside playing or on a walk.

kid-taking-photos-with-cheap-digital-camera

Image by Photoflurry via Creative Commons

Same moral objections, different context

The technology may be different, but the moral questions are the same ones that have been plaguing innovations and inventions for hundreds of years. The arrival of comics, the transmission of radio (which was once thought to be toxic for children to hear), the spread of ideas promoted by television, even the electrification of homes, have all been met with some level of trepidation by the general public. Fears about digital technology and the normalisation of its use in everyday life will, academics feel, eventually be surpassed by a new technology which we can panic over instead.

Use in education

This is one of the more contentious issues for many teachers and local authorities. There are questions about the extent to which digital technologies should be integrated in to the curriculum, particularly in the early years, and the role of the teacher in relation to digital learning. It is also clear that teacher enthusiasm and training in using digital technology is important to ensure that children get the most out of digital teaching.

Some schools have trialled bring your own device to school initiatives, although the reception given to these has been mixed. Many schools and teachers also make use of interactive whiteboards and on-line portals to set homework and to give children access to resources. There has been a suggestion that children and teachers should work with software developers to produce more apps, programmes and effective digital learning resources.

In Scotland, integrating digital elements to the curriculum has been improved by the transition to the Curriculum for Excellence. However, some schools still struggle with a lack of resources and have to continue to make use of an “ICT slot” in order to allow children to be able to access technology on a one-to-one basis.

The general consensus among education practitioners towards digital technology appears to be positive however, with many schools using online channels to communicate with pupils and parents. Some classes have blogs which the children are encouraged to contribute to, and others have utilised online web chats to twin with schools abroad in a  modern-day pen pal set up.

Creative Commons, Kathy Cassidy, 2006

Image by Kathy Cassidy via Creative Commons

A right to digital literacy?

Another issue being discussed by academics and policy makers is the idea of a right to digital literacy. In the view of many, digital learning should be integrated into everyday traditional learning to equip children with digital skills. Failing to prepare children, some academics argue, would inhibit their ability to contribute effectively in a digitised world.

It is clear that the debate around digital technology and child development will continue, and there is a need for both further study and better communication of research findings to the wider public.


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