We find out how and why schools take part in this investigative project scheme

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the British Science Association’s (BSA) CREST awards, given in recognition of school students’ achievement in investigative project work. To date around 400,000 students have participated in this scheme. Kathryn Roberts speaks to the head of education at the BSA, Maria Rossini, to find out how and why students take part.

What are the CREST awards and why were they set up?

The scheme was set up 30 years ago to address the variable quality of practical STEM work in UK secondary schools. By giving students the opportunity to do their own independent research project, the BSA hoped this would inspire them to progress to STEM degrees and careers.


Source: The British Science Association

The CREST award scheme provides a framework and recognition for quality STEM project work. It is also a way of celebrating students’ work.

In a CREST project, a student or team will pursue the answer to a question, investigate a hypothesis that interests them, or opt for a design challenge. The range of projects is very broad. Students go through the whole process of background research, planning, allocating resources and drawing conclusions. Inevitably, the process involves some failure along the way, and an important part of the award includes reflection.

Communication is a key element of all CREST awards – in addition to doing a project, students have to communicate their findings.

What sort of schools and students register?

Increasingly, we are targeting and encouraging a diverse range of schools to take part. We have introduced various expansion projects in recent years, including the Discovery level award for 11–14-year olds and the Star and Superstar levels for primary students, to get pupils interested in investigative work from an early age.

Our aim is to be open and inclusive – 50% of the students who register each year are girls.

What are the benefits of doing a CREST award?

An evaluation by Pro Bono Economics found that students who do the Silver award achieved half a grade higher in their science GCSE compared with statistically similar students who did not, and were 18% more likely to do a STEM A-level. In addition, students who were eligible for free school meals achieved three quarters of a grade higher in their GCSE science and were 38% more likely to take a STEM A-level than a matched control group.

I think the ‘CREST effect’ has as much to do with building students’ self-confidence as it has in developing their knowledge and skills. This has a positive effect on their attitudes to work and science more generally.

Do teachers have time to do CREST awards?

CREST is all about students leading on the project, so teachers shouldn’t need to spend extra time preparing.

A student takes part in an a science and engineering project

Source: © Doug Peters / PA Wire

Discovery is often delivered as part of an off-timetable day. Longer projects can be completed in as little as a few weeks or as much as two terms. They can be started during curriculum time using homework to make up the additional hours or completed as part of enrichment activities. The cross curricular and skills focus means CREST awards can also fit with other areas or be delivered as part of a wider careers programme.

Some students link their projects to a work experience placement. They are likely to invest more of their own time if they choose a project connected to their own interests.

Discovery is designed so that it can be facilitated by non-subject specialists, including older school students. The Bronze, Silver and Gold awards are a great opportunity to involve professionals working in a STEM-related field. Indeed, at Gold level this is recommended. Their enthusiasm, specialist knowledge and experience of using science in their work can help inspire students and provide a real-world context for their project.

Volunteers can be found through the STEM Ambassadors programme, through local companies or university departments.

Is it affordable for all schools?

In Wales all fees are paid by the Welsh government. In the rest of the UK, awards range from £3 per student to £20 per student depending on the level.

We offer grants of up to £600 for schools that might otherwise not be able to take part in CREST. These grants are awarded three times a year. The next round opens in September.

How do students participate?

Four levels – discovery, bronze, silver and gold – are open to secondary students. Teachers choose an appropriate level and then register students online.

Discovery introduces project work. Teachers organise, run and assess the five-hour challenge day. The level of knowledge and skills expected is between key stage 2 and 3. Students work in teams on a specific challenge, making decisions and ending up with a unique product. They must record their work using a CREST Discovery passport and communicate their findings through a group presentation.

The Bronze level requires 10 hours of project work, working at key stage 3 level of knowledge and skills. The Silver award is aimed at GCSE-level students and requires 30 hours of project work. The Gold award is aimed at A-level students and requires 70 hours of project work. Students can work in teams or independently on these awards.

How are the Bronze, Silver and Gold awards assessed?

Like the Discovery award, the Bronze is teacher assessed. Whether working in teams or not, all students must fill in their own Bronze workbook, which is structured to guide them through the project process and relates to the CREST assessment criteria. Teachers need to upload a sample of the project work done and confirm the students have met the criteria.

At Silver and Gold, students are expected to write their own report, which introduces, describes and evaluates their work, and includes references to any sources they have referred to. Students upload their reports to an online assessor who judges the work against the criteria. To ensure no student is deterred from participating, teachers can use their discretion as to how the work is recorded.

What help is available to students in identifying a project?

The BSA has a resource bank of project ideas, including its celebratory 30 inspirational ideas, but students can plan their own project as long as it meets the assessment criteria. In addition, there are over 50 BSA accredited providers, including, for example, the Nuffield Placement Scheme for the Silver award; and the Duke of Edinburgh and the Engineering Education schemes that can be used for the Gold award.