Post Hoc: STEMnet school visit
Last week, I put on my STEMnet Ambassador hat to visit a local secondary school as part of National Science and Engineering Week. I had previously been a bit apprehensive about being a STEMnet Ambassador, given that most other STEMnet Ambassadors I’ve met have been a lot more experienced than me, typically with many years’ research and industry experience as professional scientists. However, as a recent graduate, I had my own stories to tell, which did in fact prove useful.
My first lesson was with a year 7 group, who have just started work on a play about the discovery of vaccination and the questionable ethics involved. As it happens, I’m a big fan of the “meta” issues around science. I think that a lot can be achieved by studying the history of science, and cross-disciplinary projects like this are what I get very excited about. For children at that age to already be thinking about research ethics and the like was great to see.
I took on the role of director, although the class were so capable of organising themselves they hardly needed it!
For the next two lessons, I spoke to a couple of groups from years 12 & 13. Although some were to determined not to let themselves be engaged with, most were happy to contribute to the discussion. It turns out that this particular school is very good at getting in speakers to talk to (at?) the students about higher education issues such as finance. A few students were clearly not looking forward to having yet another careers talk. Now, I’m at the stage in my career where I’m still attending exactly that kind of talk, so I’m hardly qualified to give long-term employment advice beyond repeating what I’ve been told.
So instead, I ran it as an interactive Q&A session, and the students asked some really insightful questions on what they really genuinely wanted to know about. It was the kind of thing that no-one (not even myself) could have planned into a talk. For example, one student wanted to study veterinary medecine, but was unsure of getting the grades required, so she wanted to know about the feasibility of changing course after getting into university.
Rather than focus on the benefits of studying science (all of these students had basically already made that choice) the main ideas I wanted to get across were about how to make the most of opportunities as they present themselves, including (and I pointed this out explicitly) when an external expert comes into your life to offer advice.
I also got a good question about what jobs are available with a biology degree besides research and teaching. I immediately mentioned my own field of communications. Beyond that, though, a significant part of the learning that is achieved during a (science) degree is wholly unrelated to the academic content in terms of facts and theories. It has a lot more to do with transferable skills: the sheer ability to work independently, the critical thinking inherent in science, and the extra-curricular development opportunites available.
I also attended a practical laboratory session, so I was able to talk a bit about good lab practice and what “proper” science labs are like, as well as revising a bit of organic chemistry!
I spent the lunch break in the school’s “science challenge club”. This was immense fun, as the students were preparing an (exciting and messy!) activity for their stall at Bath Taps Into Science. In addition, I talked to a few students about their CREST award projects. It was great to see such young students coming up with their own ideas and devising experiments to test them. They were engaging with issues such as repeatability, sample size, control groups… indeed, these were some fine scientists in the making!
I would definitely recommend this kind of visit to other STEMnet ambassadors, or anyone who is unsure about wanting to take part in the programme. The staff at the school were welcoming, friendly and helpful. They clearly appreciated my giving up my free time to help them, and the students were obviously pleased to meet a scientist who wasn’t a teacher.
I can’t wait for my next one!