Yesterday I took an early flight down to London to attend an Institute of Physics (IoP) School Outreach Support Network meeting. I’m reasonably active in schools outreach work, and a little support never hurts. Overall the day was very positive, and I took home lots of little hints and tips that I might try and apply here, while it was also a chance to speak to range of academics that I might not normally come across. The slightly disappointing thing was that the flagship IoP activities in this area are funded in and for English schools exclusively. This ticks me off a little – a co-ordinated approach across the UK would seem appropriate, but I often find that people from ‘down South’ have difficultly dealing with a wholly different education system: there is a little of ‘I did A-levels, I understand them, the majority in the UK do them, so I need not concern myself further with anything else.’ This is disappointing, but it is a fact of life considering how eduction in the Uk is funded through devolved means – but I pay my membership fees to the IoP in London, and it’d be good to see maximum efficiency through shared schemes.
The main instrument the IoP is pushing is the ‘Stimulating Physics Network‘ which is designed to offer practical support and mentoring for physics teachers; pilot schemes are being set up with a range of partner schools who traditionally do not have much physics uptake at A level, with 35 support ‘coaches’ being available within the 420 partner schools to facilitate this. There is a great push to try and look and gender balance in physics (and through some of the schemes on offer, the wider school community) through direct work with girls, running workshops, offering peer mentoring support and senior pupil mentoring of junior pupils, increased STEM Ambassador support, highlighting gender aware pedagogy and the like. In general all positive and fairly sensible stuff, much of it on the back of previous IoP reports in this area: “It’s Different for Girls” and “Closing Doors“. The funding is there for 2-3 years and we’ll see how it all pans out. Additionally there is a scheme aimed at just London and surrounds funded by the Drayson Foundation. Physics does appear to have quite a big gender imbalance problem, and it’s good to see it being tackled head on on a number of fronts.
Other schemes currently include the ‘Your Life‘ initiative, which is led through private funding and is designed to promote better female participation in STEM subjects, aimed especially at 14-16 year olds. [Having just looked at their website, I am not quite sure what it’s all about, but hopefully the industry input will be a positive step]. There is also the Researchers in Schools project which will pay a premium of £40k a year for trainee teachers in physics and maths (for two years I believe), although I think the target number for the scheme is very low. This is aimed at PhD students and postdocs. It sounds attractive, but I can’t help feel that it would be somewhat divisive in a staff room.
We also heard from Gareth Edwards from the Open University about a RCUK funded scheme , the Schools-University Partnership which at the OU is designed to look at a number of different activities to promote engagement – open lectures, open inquiry, open dialogues and open creativity. The study will then look at the evidence base for the success of such projects. Gareth’s talk and little activity session was designed to highlight how one might measure success in these areas. The example used was in the ‘Open creativity’ section where students received media training, just like staff at the OU would and then were going to make a video making use of an element of current OU research. I think we’ll need to wait a wee while to see the project outcomes (it runs to 2015).
We also heard from a few physics academics on their outreach projects, one from Phil Furneaux from Lancaster about making better use of PhD students for outreach and the types of things they need if you are training them for such events; another from Heather MacRae from Venture Thinking and Helen Mason from University of Cambridge who produced an excellent project engaging pupils from an East London school to produce an iBook about the sun, “A big ball of fire“. The students got to visit Cambridge, took in a special lecture and worked on the multimedia aspects of putting their book together. The researchers were surprised at the range of media they got back. The idea can be readily ported to almost any subject area, although a lecture in your University might not be quite as swanky as one at Cambridge.
In the final talk we learned about the University of Bradford’s Robotic Telescope Project. This allows schools access to the telescope, which is in Tenerife, and to take real data and interact with astronomers. The idea being to provide a cross curricula opportunity which will hopefully also inspire pupils to stay with STEM.
So all in all a pretty good day, aside from the delayed flight home which mean to bed after 1am, and I have a few new ideas to try and push here, should I get a spare few minutes.
I was a judge today (14th June) at the Big Bang Fair Scotland at the SECC in Glasgow. I have had the pleasure of taking on this role several times over the past few years and this year the event was the biggest yet. There were an estimated 4000 kids due to attend with hundreds of competitors from schools all over Scotland, even from as far away as Shetland.
One of the big things that the judges are told is that the judging is actually a highlight for the kids, that the discussion with a professional scientist or engineer is a big deal, a form of validation, and it helps to add a little to the inspiration that hopefully they are all privy too as part of being involved with the competition and the event. Equally we are told not to be too hard on them, and to focus on the positive, as this can shatter the experience and put them off science and engineering.
I never have a real problem with the judging – the kids are always fairly enthusiastic and rightly proud of what they have done – the projects are often amazing – 10 year olds building working wave electricity generating machines, teams building little satellite sensor systems in a juice can, volcano investigations, Raspberry Pi controlled racing cars, Robots (lots of robots) and more renewable energy houses than you can shake a stick at – and it’s clear that they have the bug. They have been inspired. And this is in very large part due to a group of very dedicated, hard working and brilliant teachers who are the ones to help pull all the projects together.
What I found this year was that I was inspired to actually try and do something myself – one of the science club projects was sponsored by the Weir Group, and it was to look at using 3D printing to build a water wheel system. This involved giving those schools participating a 3D printer. On speaking to one of the teachers from Eastbank Academy in Glasgow it was also clear that the printer had hugely impressed some of the teachers and that the possibilities were huge – the kids had used it to print all sorts of stuff, from minecraft objects to jewellery. The comment we both made was that soon every school will want one.
So that got me thinking – one of the things Universities are supposed to try and do is engage with the local community – so why don’t I (or at least my School/College) try and get one of these devices in every high school in Dundee? I haven’t quite thought through the details yet, but I’d hope the University, some local businesses and maybe some crowdfunding might allow me to get to the target needed. There are other details to consider such as ongoing consumable costs, but let’s not let them spoil my afternoon vision. So my goal (and making this pledge in public might actually focus my mind) is to try and give the local high schools of Dundee a 3D printer as a Christmas present. I see this part of the “Transform Dundee” vision that the University of Dundee has.
If anyone wants to help in this endeavor, let me know. If anyone wants to point out the fatal flaw in my idea, that’d be good to know as well. If anyone wants to pledge money to support it, drop me a line and I’ll work out someway to take that from you.
Last year I noted that as the new head of physics at Dundee I should do more to promote women in STEM fields. This came after a bit of homework that my daughter received highlighted the stereotypes that schoolkids get all too readily when thinking and discussing scientific issues. As it turns out part of my role is to try and help guide the Physics Division towards accreditation in programmes such as Athena Swan and the Institute of Physics’ Project Juno. These have certainly got me thinking much more about the diversity issues that both Higher Education organisations and the wider community face.
The first thing I am pleased to be able to announce that we are doing is a small bit of community engagement. I am very much of the opinion that Universities have an important role to play in their local communities, and that we can in our own way help to transform the environment around us by opening up new opportunities, introducing new ideas and providing the best education we can to our local young people. I wanted to try and let schools know that there is an issue with the way in which girls at school interact with and perceive science, and that this ultimately impacts on the number of girls who end up on STEM courses and in STEM jobs, and that this, in my opinion is a huge waste of talent. I think this dovetails quite nicely with the goals of the Science Grrl group and the idea that “Science is for everyone”. To try and highlight this idea we have sent out a Science Grrl calendar to all the schools in Dundee. This is just a small action, but I hope, from a personal point of view, that it is just the start of wider engagement that we can make with these issues, and just the start of a processes of making more of an impact in and around Dundee.
if you happen to be a Dundee based teacher, I’d be interested in hearing your views on these ideas, and if we can help in anyway, just get in touch.
Many thanks also to Heather, Louise and everyone else at Science Grrl for sorting out all the calendars!
I give a number of talks and workshops etc to school kids of various ages. Often I am trying to promote the idea that they should take science further than they might have originally considered and often I am trying to promote the types of jobs and careers that those with science and technology qualifications can aspire too (I often find their knowledge on what they could do is woefully lacking). Today I was doing a ‘What is Physics?’ talk for the University’s “Discovering Degrees Days” which are aimed at promoting University for kids who come from backgrounds with little or no familial experience of Higher Education. We let them do a couple of little hand-on experiments, but before that I give them my spiel.
The thing I try and emphasise is that by pursuing science and engineering courses you cut yourself off from very few job opportunities – what I often find myself also doing is making comparisons between degree, or just generally school, subjects and assigning them a relative worth. So today I found myself saying if you have a physics degree you will be better placed in the job market than if you have an English degree. I hate myself when I say stuff like this, as I like to think of myself as being much more inclusive and try not to be dismissive of others interests (academics making snide remarks about other subject areas is a very slippery slope). You can have a much better career with an English degree than a Physics one, after all.
So I would like to apologise to anyone who ever listens to my talks and feels I am being mean to other subject areas – I am not. I genuinely believe that s STEM background makes you more employable in general than a non-STEM background. I especially want to apologise to the teachers who come to these events who often are not science teachers, and hear what I am sure sounds like undue bias.
Some school subjects are worth more in terms of University entrance than others, but I think we need to promote a balanced education, but really push students to excel in the areas they are good at, whatever that may be. Subjects shouldn’t really compete and I think the idea of increasingly interdisciplinary working, especially at school, is to be welcomed. Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence should hopefully promote this (although there are many challenges to overcome it seems). But just remember, I love Physics, but am quite partial to non-STEM like history and literature too!