BSW: Monday 14/03

It’s British Science Week! Rejoice! Or take shelter and try and get some sleep.

On Monday I visited Gillespie School in Highbury, where the incredible resident scientist Carole Kenrick works 2-3 days a week exciting the young people of N5. It’s a brilliant idea: a fully trained scientist (physicist no less!) creates a curriculum around the scientific questions of the whole school. It works by the outrageously technical and scientific process of the pupils writing their science questions on post-it notes that they put in a furry caterpillar pencil case. So far this year they’ve conquered engineering challenges using marshmallows and spaghetti, they’ve investigated the structure of diamond and they’re designing Eco houses in a school wide competition. Gillespie is a really exciting school to visit: the year 5 and 6 ‘science committee’ are inquisitive and engaged and the teachers are really welcoming. Especially the magnificent Carole. Lab 13 comes equipped with branded lab coats and coffee mugs.

I’m set to give the Lab 13 assembly, which is a whole school meeting for 20 minutes. Only the school football team have won a London-wide Arsenal football competition and they are all receiving medals/ trophies, so instead I have about 15 minutes. AND! I’m talking to the whole school… and year 1 may not be too hot on molecules and electrons. Instead I spoke about careers in STEAM (Lab 13 is very much a STEAM club not a STEM club) and making discoveries as a scientist. Because scientists in text books are usually old white men from a long time ago, it’s very hard for young people to relate to them or think they can contribute in any way- it’s hard to even dream of making a scientific discovery when you’re 10 years old. But there have been some pretty big ones in these young people’s lives: we’ve discovered graphene, we’ve proven gravitational waves, we’ve found the Higgs boson and we’ve put a man in space- the opportunities for them (when they eventually get their own keys to the lab) will be out-of-this-world. After assembly I toured the classrooms taking science questions from the savvy students. There was a lot of the “what’s the most expensive thing you’ve broken?”/”have you ever made an explosion?”, but also lots of interest in what scientists actually do day-to-day. Year 1 wanted to know how batteries work, how stars form and what the moon is made of, year 6 wanted to know how many countries I’ve visited and how to integrate solar panels onto their eco homes.

What Carole’s doing is beyond important: the sustained interactions with her will not only educate/ encourage the young people but also their parents and the whole school. What we need to actually effect change and create the STEM workforce the UK needs are more Carols in primary schools and secondary schools across the UK, so when these students leave aged 11 we don’t lose them. Lab 13 wrote up my visit here.

A cheeky 26 minutes on the Piccadilly Line took me to Hammersmith where I spoke at Sacred Heart Academy about being a woman in science. A beautiful school and a fun informal lunchtime chat. It was interesting to hear that all of these students wanted to apply to university outside of London- they didn’t want to be freshers on the streets of South Kensington amidst their parents and family friends.

I went home to collect a bundle of Young Scientist’s Journals and headed to Imperial for the finals of the Faculty of Natural Sciences School Science video competition. I was there as a devoted supporter of young science, resident photographer and committed neighbour. I also was lucky enough to help shortlist the entries- and was overwhelmed by the creativity and enthusiasm of young people. The challenge: to solve a global problem using ‘STEM’. We had food patches to detect toxins in food, energy efficient engines and nanoparticle water filtration systems. There were entries from in three year groups: year 7 – 9, 10 – 11 and 12 – 13. In my personal opinion the innovation decreased with age- there were certainly fewer entries for the oldest categories and their video skills weren’t significantly different. Heroically, Rebecca Middleton who arranges the event has achieved a totally gender-balanced science competition without trying. It also attracts entries from both state and independent schools (majority state/academy) without only going for ‘widening participation’. She does this all alone from the blue box, with varying extents of support from different departments and academics. The format of the evening was the 5 minute videos from each groups followed/ preceded by a presentation based on their idea. The lecture theatre – G16 in SAF, one of the biggest and most impressive rooms on campus – was packed full of parents, teachers and friends. The cheers of support (and genuine tears of joy) were immense. My mom came along to support our neighbour, and alongside her minor criticism of the scientific content (perhaps it’s not a great idea to attach an IV tube taking blood from your arm to your hip, even in the spirit of circulating blood and curing Perthes disease) was totally blown away by the commitment of all the teams competing. Becky had managed to recruit some pretty awesome Imperial College scientists to judge the videos: Dr Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut in space, Dr Simon Foster, physicist extraordinaire of the duck quacks, and Prof Ramon Vilar from the Department of Chemistry. The winning team, Newton’s Fourth Law, used nanoparticles to purify water for the developing world. I hope that there are more Becky’s across the nation empowering school children to use science creatively, to investigate, to question and to engineer the future!

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