A year in STEM Outreach

I remember the feeling of excitement I had when I was contacted by the Imperial College London Outreach team in July 2009 letting me know that I had a place on the HEFCE Year 11 STEM Summer school.

My biology mentor group when I was 16!

The following year I was successful in obtaining a Nuffield Science Bursary with Imperial Outreach and undertook an 8 week research project at the Natural History Museum. I was so inspired to work in research that the choices in life I subsequenty made were shaped by these experiences. It is an awesome feeling when you are in sixth form and you have come to the realisation that you have discovered a passion for a subject (biology) so much that you want to study further at university.

I wanted to give back all of the support I had received from undergraduate ambassadors at all of the outreach programmes I attended, so I got in touch with the Imperial outreach team again after finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Hull and asked if they needed a volunteer.

They were pleased to hear from me and that I was still doing science! So in the busy summer of 2014 I became a STEM Activities mentor, where I helped as an academic mentor in many summer schools and day science activities, as well as being a fun pastoral mentor in the evenings for the residential summer schools. Mentoring is great because you get to interact with students on the terms that you are not their teacher but you are also not their best friend, it’s a very happy medium as the mentors are approachable and students feel more comfortable in asking questions about specific subjects and the whole process of university that they may have been too scared to ask otherwise. For a state school student who has no family members or friends who have attended university this interaction provides the conversation they need at this stage of their lives, which is likely to aid the important decisions they make regarding their education in the future.

I continued mentoring throughout my masters degree at Imperial College until 2015, where at the end of my research a fantastic opportunity became available in the Outreach Office as STEM Projects Assistant! Throughout my time as a student at school and at university I have had the opportunity to part take in the excellent events that imperial outreach have put on. But during this time, I hadn’t actually realised how much work and effort goes into organising such workshops, day events, and even summer schools, which takes months of planning and meetings. Organisation, risk assessments, room bookings, equipment lists, catering, activities, academic leaders, academic mentors… The list continues! I had the absolute pleasure to take part in the following events:

In no particular order….

1) Spectroscopy in a Suitcase (SIAS)

I was in charge of organising the Imperial contract for SIAS where we organise Imperial chemistry ambassadors to take spectrometers to schools in a suitcase! (The suitcase sized NMRs, we don’t use a lorry to transport the room-sized ones!). This is a great opportunity for students to see the different techniques used in order to identify unknown compounds.

SIAS at Oaks Park High School

2) Cheltenham Science Festival

Shreya and I co-demonstrated activities from Professor Robert Winston’s Book “Home Lab”. We made some non-Newtonian fluids and batteries from lemons!

Cheltenham Science Festival “Home Lab”
Shreya and I before the book launch

3) Imperial Festival

We opened up the Reach Out Laboratory to the public and did some fun science activities for three days, with the first day dedicated to primary schools only!

Bendy Bones demo at the Imperial Festival!

4) Helen Sharman’s 25th anniversary 

A truest awesome and historic day for outreach! The reach out lab was filled with the presence of 15 astronauts who took part in the Schools Twitter QnA to celebrate Dr Helen Sharman’s 25th Anniversary since docking on the Mir Space station.

The amazing Astronauts and Twitter QnA team!
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I interveiewed two astronauts with questions from school students!
Signed Poster!

5) Imperial college women in Science 

This Event took place to celebrate the Women staff and students At imperial. The schools day consisted of many many year 8 girls filling the college to have a lecture followed by a visit to the outreach planetarium!

Elizabeth and I explaining our MRes Research on Termites and Ants

6) Sutton Trust Summer School

As the co academic leader for the Sutton Trust Biological Sciences stream I was thrilled to design the course and co-lead with Dr Rebecca Holloway! Our theme for the week was to go from large habitat scale ecology down to to small scale microbiology including cell biology and molecular biology. It was an immensely enjoyable week and a pleasure to work with the knowledge thirsty students and everyone on the Biological Sciences team!

Biological Sciences Stream
Lilly Pollen under the microscope
We also discovered evolutionary history of species using One Zoom!
Zebrafish Larvae staining to see macrophages
Students bring in Photos of their local habitats!
Biological Sciences academic mentors and leaders
Origami Rhinoceros Beetle gift by student who lnow loves insects!
Professor Robert Winston pretending to be a fallopian tube as he talks to Sutton Trust Students

7) Experiment! Summer SchoolFor the first time, the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music and Imperial Outreach joined forces to make the first interdisciplinary summer school for a range of ages. Experiment! Aimed to promote raising aspirations in all subjects and an awareness of the similarities between the arts and sciences. The Science stream consisted of ecology fieldwork in the morning and understanding DNA and extracting DNA from lab-made Smoothies!

Elizabeth demonstrating thre sweep netting technique
Colecting the rewards of a good sweep netting of a bush!
Excellent biological drawing of an Earwig!
Joe teaching students plant identification
Students making DNA Smoothies to extract DNA
How to break down those cell walls!
Looking at onion cells

It has been so amazing to be part of these events, and many more which I  havent even mentioned. The relationships I have made with colleagues, mentors and all of the students I have had the pleasure to work with this year has been unforgettable. The knowledge and skills I gathered by talking to large groups, learning from mistakes, communicating to people of all age groups, all backgrounds, having the freedom of creativity whilst designing workshops and the value of feedback not only from students but also colleagues has been an invaluable learning curve for me. On some instances throughout this role, I felt out of my depth, where I didn’t feel like I had the skills to deliver! However, the help and support of the team boosted my confidence over time.

Increase in self confidence after this year

So, it appears that I have been through all of the stages of Imperial outreach! It is remarkable to be an individual who has had the support of a University Outreach office on many stages of life. I will always endeavour to do outreach, but for now it is time to return to my passion for science and ecological research. I am currently in Malaysia where I will meet with the Natural History Museum Termite Ant Research Team to assist in understanding biodiversity and land use intensification and the implications it has on insect communities and rainforest habitats in Borneo.

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