Engaging children with STEM

post by Neeshé Khan (2018 cohort)

Last year I decided to partake in a program that engages primary school children from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage with students from the local university. This provides an opportunity for children to have positive role models or Mentors that can provide support and some sort of a roadmap to whatever they might dream to be when they grow up. I decided to do this to encourage a child to dream about a life in STEM.

As young adults, it is easy and intuitive to explore, experiment, and discover the right choices for your future career. Despite having an aptitude for STEM you might want to explore Arts or Business which is perfectly acceptable. However, when you change your mind STEM doesn’t welcome you back into the fold. There are stringent requirements for the combinations of subjects you must have and the grades you need to be able to start an undergraduate degree. If you have Physics at A-levels (anyone who has done this will tell you that Physics contains more Mathematics than A-Level Mathematics subject) it is required that you must also have Mathematics in A-levels. So if like me, a student also wants to explore economics, business studies, and a language, it means you can no longer enter an Engineering undergraduate degree regardless of your grade in Physics. However, this poses no issues for pursuing a degree in any non-science subjects as all undergraduate degrees will make you relearn the basics, and often lecturers will tell you to forget what you learnt in previous years as it’s mostly inaccurate for truly understanding the subject. Unsurprisingly, I believe that this ‘locking out’ of bright young minds for STEM fields based on ‘desirable combinations’ is in large the main contributor towards the STEM skills crisis that the western world is now facing.

But coming back to the point, I wanted to help a young child strengthen their academic STEM foundations and generate interest where they can see an exciting future in this space. In a few days, I was matched to an 11-year-old (let’s call her “Tara”) who’s interested in STEM and aspires to become a doctor.

While there are several programs available, I really enjoyed this one. It was structured, transparent, had clear expectations and outcomes, and well organised. It offered training and support for the Mentors which meant I would enjoy speaking to Megan (project co-ordinator at the venue) about what my meeting plans were or if I wanted some insights or advice.

I started off the program by providing continuity. I became a staple figure in her life which meant we would meet at a fixed schedule, for the agreed duration, at the agreed time, and follow the agenda that we had agreed in our previous meeting. I always showed up. Much like the gym, showing up (to see this little person waiting for me) meant more than half the effort was already done. We had decided to work on subjects that Tara identified she needed help with, particularly focusing on SATs (Maths, Science, and English). I also allowed Tara to decide what our meetings would look like, empowering her to be in control of our progress. This meant that while she performed very well on tests, we also reflected on what factors contributed to the mistakes and explored tools to overcome them. After a year, Tara ended up achieving one of the top scores in her school and got one of the two scholarships for a private secondary school in the area.

There were also some difficult times. I sometimes struggled to get her attention or interest. Many times this was because she had other things on her mind. Her mom was a qualified nurse from another country who couldn’t practice in the UK without an equivalence which takes time and money, two of the biggest resources for any immigrant. She ended up working two jobs in a profession outside her qualification. Tara discussed her challenges in trying to study in close quarters with her younger siblings. At a young age, she was wise beyond her years and I would often catch myself remembering how little she actually was. We put in the effort to developing skills to overcome the pressure and stress SATs bring to their young lives. We practised exercises to help retain focus in busy environments and relieve stress which included slime making and controlled breathing.

I really enjoyed discovering how the current education system uses new techniques to teach children. For instance, the way we would multiply was completely different! Thankfully our answers almost always matched! When they didn’t, I had to learn her system of understanding and convert my reasoning to fit Tara’s model so it would a) be correct/spot her mistake in her workings and b)make sense to her. I took this as a challenge and found this quite a fun exercise on most days.

Overall, I feel that I made some difference towards Tara achieving her goals and hopefully contributed towards making her STEM career aspirations a real option in her future. I would really encourage everyone to take up this as a rewarding experience to engage the future in any discipline and field you personally care about. Just be consistent and dedicate as much time as you think you can spare. Even a half-hour a week can help contribute to a young life that might need skills you might not know you have.

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog

Working with Inspire Foundation Nottingham

Post by Symeon Dionysis (2017 Cohort)

 

In a society that seems to be increasingly motivated by personal gain, be it financial or otherwise, altruistically offering your energy, knowledge, and more importantly your time, towards a cause you find meaning to is a refreshing deed for the soul. Although I have participated in voluntary work before, the academic workload over the past three years has not allowed me to do so. Until now! Inspire Foundation was established in early 2019 by a group of researchers/employees of the University of Nottingham as well as individual from across the city. The goal? To bring together and integrate new and established communities through cultural and educational events and activities.

(Inspire Foundation at the Signpost to Polish Success (SPS) Event – November 2019)

Back in April, during a conversation with a friend (and one of Inspire’s founders), he informed me about the project they were putting together and the STEM club for young people they had just start running. I have always enjoyed working with kids (I have spent more than two years doing work on the social-emotional development of pre-schoolers) and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved, once again, in voluntary work. I decided to attend one session which was a broad and palatable introduction to computer science. The youngsters were enthusiastic and after the presentation, we spend some bonding time together. It was apparent to me at this point that this was an initiative worth getting involved with.

The main project of the foundation is the “Victor Tudorica” Bursary and Saturday Club, in memory of Victor Tudorica, a student at The University of Nottingham how unfortunately passed away back in 2016. With the goal of promoting and delivering educational activities and workshops in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) fields this initiative is aimed at young people between 11-15 years of age from disadvantages and potentially vulnerable backgrounds. The club ran for 6 months (March 2019 – August 2019) and it included a vast array of activities ranging from building LEGO robots to discussing skills for the future and from creating short movies to dismantling old computer hardware. The club also paid a visit to our own Mixed Reality Lab where we had the chance to talk to researchers, have fun at the VR playground and get our personalised laser-cut tags.

The most memorable activity for me was the movie-making session. At the previous meeting, we formed groups of 3-4 people and decided the theme of the short movie as well as set up our storyboards. We had, therefore, the structure of the story ready and upon our arrival, we decided what roles each one will play, where we are going to shoot our scenes and what kind of props we will need. After finishing with shooting, we spend a good amount of time editing our movies which we then presented to the entire group. It was an excellent activity for the young ones, being both engaging and informative since they learned how to use a camera and editing software as well as solving problems on the spot.

(Video Making Session at the Saturday Club – July 2019)

After the completion of the Saturday Club, I was wondering whether to get more involved with Inspire Foundation in the upcoming year and a couple of weeks ago I received a message regarding Inspire’s annual general meeting. Walking into the meeting, I was still not sure whether my academic work will allow me for a more committed role in the charity. These doubts, however, were waived away after experiencing first-hand the commitment and engagement from all other members. I decided, consequently, to become a trustee for this year. It is, indeed, the first time I become involved in this way with a charity and I very much looking forward to this journey.

(Inspire Foundation Annual General Meeting – October 2019)

Inspire Foundation has already several plans for the upcoming months, ranging from events with communities around Nottingham to re-initiating the Saturday club and engaging with the University of Nottingham in promoting STEM activities. Last week, for example, we participated in an event organised by the Polish community in which we set up an exhibit with our Lego Mindstorms Robots. Three kids from the Saturday Club were also present and helped out with the event. I will try to keep you updated on our activities with another blog post in the near future.

My overall experience with the Inspire Foundation has been nothing less than fantastic. Engaging with an organization that provides teenagers with the opportunity to explore new routes for their future as well as allowing me to meet new people and interact with local communities is one of the best decisions I have made this year and I would highly recommend for everyone to get involved.

The GIFT project

Post by Harriet Cameron (2018 Cohort)

The GIFT Project is an international project funded by Horizon 2020, which explores new ways of engaging with cultural heritage through gifting . The scope of the project is huge, and draws together researchers, artists, designers and museum professionals from across Europe, including the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab . GIFT has developed and deployed various experiences with museums in Denmark, Italy, Norway, Spain, Serbia, the UK and the USA since it began in 2017. It has several different ‘tracks’ within it, each of which explores different elements of gifting, interactivity and cultural experiences. For example The Gift Experience allows the user to choose objects or places within the museum; photograph them; personalise elements of it, for example with a written note or audio comment; and then gift it to someone to experience for themselves. Another example is The One Minute Experience, which uses templates and guidelines to enable visitors to write short texts about objects viewed in the museums, which they can then leave as gifts for other visitors. I was lucky enough to meet the wonderful Dr Jocelyn Spence, the lead Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham for the GIFT project and originator of VRtefacts (developed alongside the equally wonderful Dr Dimitrios Darzentas), early on in my PhD. Through her, I learned about the GIFT project and the amazing work they were doing.

My PhD project is working with the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery  to explore relationships between audience, art and venue, and how those relationships can be better understood and developed into something more long term, personal and meaningful, through the use of novel technologies. Naturally, the GIFT project offered a fantastic insight into some of the ways work like mine is already being undertaken, and a chance to see how this work is received by the public users. When I was given the opportunity to help with a two day deployment of the VRtefacts experience as part of the GIFT project, I was delighted to get on board.

In late May 2019, at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery  we showed VRtefacts to the public for the first time. The project, without spoiling anything for any reader who may yet get a chance to experience it themselves, used virtual reality (VR) to encourage visitors to donate personal stories to the Derby Museum. Enabled by a combination of tactile and digital technologies, and a beautiful VR environment created by Dr Dimitrios Darzentas, visitors were able to interact with artefacts in a thoroughly immersive and novel way. My role for the course of the deployment was to get the visitor settled into the VR environment, set the scene for their donation experience, and then to guide them through their storytelling. We heard from a broad array of people, who donated an even broader range of stories. From hypothesising what the artefact may have been used for, to memories of related objects and places, to tangential personal anecdotes and fictional hyperbole, we were gifted with some fantastic tales that added a resonant, human layer to the objects displayed. The value of this to the museum, the visitor, and the research project are multiple. For example, for the museum, it gave a new avenue to understanding their audiences, and the meanings they take from the exhibits shown. For the visitor, it allowed them a deeper way to engage with the exhibits, a space to reflect on their own experience or expertise, and a platform to share those reflections with others. Finally, in terms of research, it demonstrated a novel, exciting way of accessing audiences, as well as the importance of inter-disciplinary projects in contemporary research.

The future for museums and galleries comes, in part, in a technologically driven, interactive format, which enables visitors to experience not just the exhibits, but the museum experience as a whole in novel and exciting ways. VRtefacts is a timely and exhilarating glimpse at what future museum visiting may entail, and the feedback from the public who engaged with the project was overwhelmingly positive. By providing a way for visitors to interact with artefacts and exhibits in a tactile, personal way, it became apparent that each visitor had their own interpretations, reflections, and indeed stories for each piece, brought to the fore by the enoblement of the technologies involved, that they were excited to share with the museum as well as each other. Enabling the visitor to share their stories was not only well received by them, but also by the museum who were pleased to learn about the histories of each piece, or the personal relevance of the artefacts to the individual. VRtefacts represents one face of the future for museums and galleries, in which personalised interactivity forms an important part of the visitor experience.

On a more personal note, the project demonstrated just one way that technologies can be utilised to enable and encourage connections between visitors, cultural venues, and exhibits. Despite my involvement beginning late in the process, just a few weeks before the date of the intervention, I was delighted that my feedback on the human engagement element was integrated into the final experience, and it provided a valuable insight into how these kind of projects are developed and deployed in a museum setting. Running the experience also allowed me to revisit storytelling skills I had established during my time working at an escape room, and develop those skills in a new context. Most importantly I think, it gave me an insight into the practicalities of running an intervention; potential pitfalls and opportunities, the value of a strong team, and the importance of foresight (like bringing spares for your spares!). I’m looking forward to being involved in more projects like this in the future, learning more and offering more back, even at some point using these skills I have been developing to stage my own interactive experience within a cultural institution as part of my PhD.

Teaching Python Programming at Nottingham Girls High School

Post by Jimiama Mafeni Mase (2018 Cohort)

I participated in the outreach activity of teaching python programming language to students of Nottingham Girls High School organised by a social enterprise called Codex. Codex is a social enterprise run by students from the University of Nottingham. Selected candidates had interviews with Codex management team who were interested in the candidates’ python coding skills and their passion in teaching children. Fortunately, Codex selected a small team of computer scientist including myself to teach introduction to python for 5 weeks (i.e. 1 hour every week) from the 1st of March to the 29th of March 2019.

The syllabus for the course consisted of the fundamentals of python programming i.e. inputs, outputs, data types, maths operators, conditional statements, while loops and for loops. Each class was made up of about 15 to 20 students and lectures took place in the school’s computer lab. We taught using power point lecture notes and hands-on programming exercises. These required us to be extremely audible and patient with the students as most of them didn’t have any programming experience or knowledge. We were also required to speak fluently and make sure all the students understand the concepts and complete the exercises.

We successfully completed the course on the 29th of March and provided a link for the students to fill out surveys about their experiences and rate the teachers. I learnt some teaching skills from this outreach activity, as it was my first experience as a teacher. In addition, it enhanced my problem solving skills as we received a lot of challenging questions about certain concepts in the lecture notes and exercises. It was a great experience and opportunity to transfer some of my knowledge as a computer scientist to the younger generation, which we consider “Future leaders”. Lastly, I will love to thank Codex and the University of Nottingham for this opportunity and wish that they create many more outreach activities for children to learn computer science.

 

My Journey to a PhD

Post by Abigail Fowler (2016 Cohort)


STEM “My Journey to a PhD” Talk, February 2019

I joined a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) event at Loughborough Grammar School. I was happy to join in when I heard they were running STEM events for secondary school boys and girls. On a rather wet and windy day, I headed to the event hoping the pupils would enjoy my talk and have some interesting questions.

My talk covered My Journey to a PhD, my research, and a memory game to demonstrate working memory. The game involved seeing an image of items from around the home and kitchen for 10 seconds. Then having 10 seconds to write down as many items as they could remember. I took the items with me as a tactile version in case any blind or partially sighted pupils attended. Somewhat ironically I forgot to boil an egg to take with me to match the image, but improvised with an egg cup for the tactile version.

The talk went really well and the pupils loved the memory test. No one got all 14 items, and they all sighed when I put the image back up so they could see what they’d missed. The second test involved spotting what was missing from an image, and they all answered the moment the slide appeared. It was a simple but effective demonstration of how our ability to remember varies between tasks and this should be considered in design. I am glad I included a practical element as it is always great to get more interaction. The group had been hesitant to ask questions, so it was good to give them permission to get involved at the end of the talk.

My PhD is sponsored by the rail industry. It turned out that Network Rail provide funding for a STEM challenge. Pupils were eager to hear how they could work on projects of interest to Network Rail. I suggested they consider level crossings, and how to influence the behaviour of level crossing users, as this is an area of great interest to the rail industry.

During the day I got to hear some of the current ideas students had for their own STEM projects. These included how to detect when someone is having an allergic reaction to food and designing a water filtration system to provide drinking water. I was really impressed with the range of projects and their innovation.

I talked to the teacher afterwards, and they will be coordinating STEM events in the future across the region to raise awareness with pupils of opportunities and future careers in STEM. I welcome this programme, and the links that can be built between schools and universities to support pupils in their further education of STEM subjects.

—Originally posted at

Summer Scientist

Each year children and parents are invited to visit the University and play lots of free and fun games that help us with research. This past summer, Wendy Olphert (2015 cohort) enjoyed assisting in one of the activities at Summer Scientist 2018:

A bit of brainwave! –Wendy Olphert

I’m researching the role that digital technologies (such as mobile phones and the internet) play in the lives of people with a brain tumour – whether their symptoms create challenges for technology use, and whether using technologies can contribute to improving their quality of life.

At one level, this is quite an easy idea to communicate to people outside of an academic context – we readily understand that if we have a problem with our brain it could affect our ability to think or act – but to appreciate the range of impacts that a brain tumour could have on an individual’s life requires an awareness of what our brains do and how they work.  The brain is such a complex organ that scientists are still researching these questions.  But we already know a lot, and as I recently found out, even for young children it can be fun as well as instructive to learn about how brains work!

Over the summer I had a chance to assist in an event called Summer Scientist 2018.

This is a week-long programme run by the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham in the school vacation that has now run for several years.  Families are invited to bring their children (aged 4-11) to spend half a day at the University to play lots of free fun games and optionally to take part in some research activities – that were also designed to be fun and engaging. By taking part, children (and parents) get to learn about how the mind and brain work by experiencing real science first-hand.

University of Nottingham Psychology Science week. Photos by Alex WIlkinson of Alex Wilkinson Photography.

I was given responsibility for an activity on the theme of electroencephalography – how dull does that sound for young kids?!  But the organisers had found a clever and entertaining way to demonstrate the fact that the brain generates electrical impulses, using a special headset with a pair of furry (fake!) cat’s ears attached (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurowear). The headset picks up electrical activity from the brain which in turn moves the ears depending on your state of mind. When you are relaxed, the ears droop; when you are interested, the ears are alert – and when you are ‘in the zone’ the ears wiggle.  The kids had free choice over the activities they chose to take part in, and most were fascinated by the wiggly ‘cats ears’ and keen to try them out for themselves.

The children attending had a free choice over the activities they opted to do, and during the course of the two sessions in the day around 40 children of different ages came to the stand to try out the ears and, by doing so, learned about electrical impulses in the brain.  There was a mirror to look in; once I’d attached their headset, some found out that the more they giggled at their reflection the more the ears wiggled (and the more the ears wiggled, the more they laughed!) Others, especially one little boy of about 6, spent many minutes silently trying out different ‘brain activities’ such as thinking about exciting times such as parties, being calm, or trying to count backwards from 20, and clearly being intrigued to see the effects of his ‘brainwaves’ on the ears’ movement.

For the older children, and in some cases their parents, I explained how scientists can use the electrical impulses in the brain to find out more about how it works and what is happening when the brain is not working as it should – and that in turn gave me a chance to tell some of them about the research that I am doing.

I really enjoyed the day and it was clear that the kids had a great time too, as well as picking up lots of science along the way.  I felt that the whole concept of ‘Summer Scientist’ week really was a bit of a brainwave!