Since January 2008, Warwick’s Chemistry Department has played host to a successful schools outreach programme. During the 2008–09 academic year this meant that 77 staff and students worked with 3,500 school children aged 6 to 18. Here, Nick Barker, a teaching fellow in the department who organises the programme, outlines the origins of the scheme, what it’s trying to achieve and explains its activities.
Around 2002, many people had grown hugely concerned by falling numbers of students studying sciences at our universities. In 2006, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) was awarded £3.65 million by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to create an initiative called Chemistry for our Future. Part of this initiative created a number of RSC Teacher Fellowships which enabled some school teachers to spend time working in university chemistry departments. I was fortunate enough to be awarded one of these fellowships and came to the University of Warwick at the start of 2008.
Once at Warwick, I chose to put my energies into schools outreach work. I wanted to make it possible for young people to meet the very talented scientists who work here. I have never just wanted to persuade children to study science. I want them to be able to judge accurately whether they would enjoy it. I firmly believe that we can promote an inspiring and universal message: that the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake is important and that you should allow your own passions, talents and curiosity to determine the career path you follow.
ortunately, this work is valued highly by everyone in the Chemistry Department and in the University as a whole. My work was entirely funded by the RSC for only six months. Since then I have been paid by the University with the costs for the outreach work itself being met by the RSC. Professor Tim Bugg agreed to the concept of allowing a teacher to work at Warwick’s Chemistry Department in the first place, and without his constant support and guidance I have no doubt that the outreach programme simply would not exist.
Mostly, we work with mainstream state, primary and secondary schools in Coventry and Warwickshire. However, we have also worked with famous public schools and a special educational centre for young people who have been excluded from mainstream education. We go out to schools to give lectures (many of which, naturally, feature loud explosions!) and bring school students into the Chemistry Department. Here they enjoy experiments in the laboratories that last a whole day, tutorials, tours and computer workshops.
Challenging our visitors
I love going out to schools but I think that the best work happens when children can visit us here. There is something wonderful about watching a school student discussing their experiment with a professor, or being shown how to use some complex piece of apparatus by a postgraduate. We have the opportunity to challenge our visitors to accomplish seemingly complicated tasks and help them to complete the work. Most importantly, here children can work with people who are hugely talented at science. Everyone understands that these experiences must inspire young people and, gratifyingly, both they and their teachers tell us that they do.
Sadly, the RSC’s Chemistry for our Future programme has now come to an end. Although Astra Zeneca has funded two teacher fellowships for this coming academic year, the future of this initiative is far from certain.
The members of staff at Warwick’s Chemistry Department have decided that the schools outreach programme should continue. This means that funding must be found to support it. We have shown that for the children fortunate enough to experience it, the outreach activities are inspiring and helpful. We are now looking at how we can best target our efforts to bring the maximum benefit from finite resources. As alumni, you should feel very welcome to contact us if you could help us in any way.
For more information on the outreach scheme, visit the Chemistry department website.