Do you hanker for the opportunity to talk to schoolchildren about your research? If so, Sarah Barnes, public engagement manager at Queen Mary University of London, has some advice. David Payne reports.
The Centre of the Cell in London’s East End is the world’s first science education centre to be housed in an operating biomedical research facility, an embryo-shaped pod suspended high above the Blizard Institute’s labs, part of Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). It is accessed via a bridge and offers children the chance to see scientists at work, watch videos projected onto the pod’s ceiling, and play games aimed at triggering their interest in cell biology and medical research.
In a typical 90-minute visit the centre’s young visitors will be greeted a trained “explainer,” accompanied either by a medical or dental student from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry. Its website promises that visitors “will learn about the amazing world of cells, the human body and the latest medical research.”
The centre’s aims are the same as any scientist interested in schools-based outreach work and include a desire to inspire the next generation of scientists and to raise aspirations, especially in its local community.
Whitechapel, where the centre is based, lies in Tower Hamlets, London’s second most deprived borough. Most educational outreach, of course, takes place not in state-of-the-art locations such as The Centre of the Cell, but in local schools. Scientists are often invited to give talks to schoolchildren about their careers.
But what do the schoolchildren themselves think about the careers talks they receive from working scientists? Sarah Barnes, public engagement manager at QMUL, says the feedback from the centre’s young visitors is pretty consistent. In a nutshell:
• Think about your audience, and what you wanted to know at their age
• Make sure your posters are attractive
• Don’t just talk about yourself and your own career
• Don’t forget to mention qualifications (good GCSE options, for example, for a UK audience)
• Use a prop (fake snot or blood?), an exciting image, or a mystery object
• Talk about what you would have done differently
Addressing the UK Academy of Medical Sciences winter meeting in London last month, Barnes urged her audience not to switch into teacher mode when they visit schools, telling them: “You are not there to teach. Schools have fantastic teachers. You are not there to replace them. Don’t say, ‘Everything your teacher has told you is wrong.'”
She also had some clear advice about using humour, adding: “Don’t put jokes in your talk. What kids find funny is not what you find funny. The same goes for references to popular culture. You think you’re down with the kids, but you aren’t.”
Demonstrations can be the centrepiece of a scientific talk, and Barnes’ advice was to keep things simple, use equipment that is easy to set up, and focus on making things fun and interactive, ideally by recruiting volunteers to help out. The Centre of the Cell, uses fake snot and blood to help get its messages across, and to make demonstrations more fun.
If you’re yearning to communicate your science to schools, there are some practical and “reputational” considerations also. “You are representing your career and your university,” Barnes reminded her audience, and any session should include a risk assessment and attention to issues such as safeguarding.
Taking photographs, for example, will require a teacher’s permission. Schools also hate cold-calling, she added, so it’s best to find a specific teacher’s contact number and either call at lunchtime or after school.
Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks
This is the process for checking whether someone has as criminal record in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (its Scottish equivalent is the Protecting Vulnerable Groups scheme).
The STEM Ambassador programme, for example, is a nationwide volunteer network in the UK and all participants are DBS checked. An evaluation report showed 89% of teachers said their students’ awareness of STEM had increased as a result of working with the programme.
Described as a “free and easy way for thousands of schools, colleges and volunteers from the world of work to connect, the initiative also has sections devoted to women in science and Primary Futures, which helps children understand the link between learning in school and the world of work.
Billed as “the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK,” the fair combines interactive workshops and exhibits and careers information from STEM professionals.
CREST Awards help school students to undertake projects in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related areas.
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.