Ambassadors open pupils' eyes to the appliance of science

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Scheme pairs schools with people working in STEM subjects

A version of speed-dating for scientists is happening at Springburn Academy in Glasgow's east end.

"The hardest part is when Ruth calls time," says Laura Ferguson, a student zoologist at Glasgow University. "You have to move to the next table, but there's much more you want to say."

Once known as "science ambassadors", Ms Ferguson and her colleagues are now "STEM ambassadors", reflecting the fact that their rapidly-swelling ranks include technologists, engineers and mathematicians too.

Whatever their title, the volunteers who take time off from jobs and studies to go into schools and engage young people do a fantastic job of opening eyes to undreamt-of possibilities, say teachers.

"Do you have to be really smart to go to university?" one second-year Springburn lad asks theoretical physicist Andrew McMahon. "Well I'm no genius," he replies. "But if you really want something you work hard for it."

Ambassadors are great role models, says Joanne Campbell, Springburn's faculty head of science.

"Just speaking to people who have been to university is a big thing for our pupils - most of whom, if they go, will be the first in their families," she says. "It's good for them to hear what university life is like, as well as what scientists do in their work."

Ambassadors regularly run all kinds of activities in primary and secondary schools, from solar-powered car workshops to careers chats for S2 students making subject choices. There are more than 2,300 ambassadors in Scotland, with numbers rising steadily.

At the beginning of the Springburn Academy session, some second-year students seem unenthused. But the ambassadors soon win them over. You have to find a hook for their interest, says Ms Ferguson. First-year science student Nicola Black agrees. "I found myself talking about an incident with sulphuric acid that got spilled. They liked the idea that things could go wrong in science."

A surprise on this, her first ambassador outing, says Ms Ferguson, was how pupils saw little connection between science and everyday life. "I gave them examples - like the self-cleaning paint for buildings based on orchids, because water running off them takes the dirt with it. They're also interested in where science can take you, what it's like in the workplace."

Is it all very serious at university, a young girl asks Mr McMahon. "No, you get plenty of time off." he replies. "I finished last week for the summer. Some folk go to university to meet people and have fun, because they don't know what kind of job they want.

"I'm studying something I love, which is different from school. I didn't like (school) because they made you study things you weren't interested in."

Does astrophysicist Marina Battaglia work alone or with others, the pupils wonder. "It depends. When I don't know how to continue, I'll go talk to colleagues. When you discover something in science, it's important to tell other scientists. So we travel a lot. We have meetings all over the world."

Has she made any huge discoveries, the pupils ask. "Not yet," she smiles.

Experienced ambassadors, such as George Dunn, know the secret to removing the ennui from S2 faces - get them talking. At his table he does this right away. "I work for EDF Energy," Mr Dunn says. "Who knows what they sell?"

One lad does and George then summarises 20 years of employment in less than a minute, before inviting questions. Is the job hard? How much does it pay? Do you argue with your boss? Did you know what you wanted to do when you left school? To which he responds: "I hadn't a clue."

This kind of roundtable discussion is effective in getting scientists and children talking, says former headteacher and education consultant Ruth Ruthven, who is running the Springburn event for Science Connects - the matchmaker for schools and ambassadors.

"They work really well. I move around, listen to conversations, throw in a question or two when I hear a learning opportunity. It's hard not to when you're a teacher. But ambassadors soon learn to do it themselves."

The whole experience was very satisfying, says first-time ambassador Mr McMahon, afterwards. "One girl kept asking about university, and you could tell no one had really talked to her about it before.

"Then there was the boy who wanted to know if you had to be smart. When I said it was about working hard, you could see him thinking: `Aw, right. That makes sense.'"


At the annual ambassadors celebration in Glasgow Science Centre, teachers, ambassadors and schoolchildren got together to share ideas and experiences.

Aileen Hamilton, West of Scotland STEM ambassadors co-ordinator, presented the figures behind the initiative:

- there are 2,300 ambassadors in Scotland and 20,000 UK-wide;

- 40 per cent are female;

- nearly 70 per cent are aged under 35;

- 55 per cent of secondary schools are now engaged with ambassadors.

Kids love new faces in the classroom, says chemistry teacher Rebecca Sowden, who is supervising a party of pupils from The Glasgow Academy.

"They get excited at the thought of talking to real scientists," she says. "My kids will sometimes ask an ambassador something that they've already asked me. If they get the same answer - which they usually do - then they believe it."

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