Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Science Sisters: Their School Gate Story

Guest post by Karen Dickens

Back in 2007, I was fortunate to be involved at the outset of the Science Sisters project in Christchurch, Dorset. The project was the brain-child of Dr Jan Peters and funded by UKRC & EU.

The project created a network of local mums to support science and technology enrichment in their children’s schools. Each with a background or interest in science and the desire to do more than help with reading, we aimed to help schools engage children in science, challenge perceptions and stereotypes around STEM and fire young imaginations.

Over a period of two years, we delivered a wide-ranging programme in schools throughout the Christchurch pyramid including:
  • Setting up science clubs
  • Initiating BA Crest Award and National Science & Engineering Week participation
  • Developing and delivering practical activity sessions in schools,
  • Organising inter-school competitions
  • Facilitating knowledge sharing events for Head Teachers, Science Co-ordinators and teaching assistants.
  • Organising a week-long science festival throughout Christchurch Primary schools.
Above all, the original core of ten mums honed their investigative, administrative and presentation skills, giving them the confidence to enhance, progress, or kick-start their careers in science or teaching.

For me, it was the start of an ongoing participation in the STEM Ambassador scheme, the co-ordination of the STEMnet programme for Dorset, and a return to study as I began my MSc in Science Communication.

My first school activities

The original cohort of Science Sisters met in a local school lab and community hall for some training in the delivery of experiments and projects from a resource library we had assembled. We all enrolled as STEM Ambassadors, as their support services include managing criminal record checks and issuing DBS Certificates.

Very quickly we made our first school visits, attending our own and each other’s children’s primary schools. Initially, we visited in pairs or groups depending on the number of children involved – this certainly helped us to understand and familiarise ourselves with the school environment.

I would definitely recommend “buddying up” for your first visits, particularly if you have not been into a school since Year 11!  It’s great to have someone alongside in case you ‘forget your lines’ or need help circulating the classroom in the throes of a hands-on project and answering questions.

My first activities were with Foundation to Year 6 pupils and included simple kitchen chemistry or bridge & Millennium Wheel construction projects.  Seeing the enthusiasm and curiosity of the pupils (and teachers) was a real spur to do more. As time progressed, my confidence grew and I went on to develop my own activities and demonstrations presenting them single-handed in classrooms. This eventually led on to organising and delivering Chemistry at Work events funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry in Secondary schools across Dorset too.

I would thoroughly recommend getting involved in supporting STEM activities at your own children’s Primary Schools, perhaps with a group of like-minded Mums or Dads you’ve met at the School Gate! Primary teachers often have Arts or Humanities backgrounds and really appreciate support in delivering science and technology subjects. If you can assemble a small group, you could consider starting an After School Science Club, taking it in turns to run sessions.

I really enjoy going into classrooms and school halls to help young people understand the world around them and hone their ability to question, investigate and experiment for themselves. One of many rewarding moments came a few years in when a Year 8 pupil came to me during a session and said that she remembered me running a chemistry activity when she was in Year 2!  She has gone on to choose Triple Science at GCSE and I hope that her engagement with the sciences will carry on through her future studies and career.

I have been constantly surprised and delighted by the young people I have met over the last few years. I’m thrilled that a few of those pupils may have had their ‘light bulb moment’ as a result of an activity or idea that I have introduced. I would encourage anyone with an interest and enthusiasm for science or technology to make some time to support their local schools.

My Top Tips:

  • Be patient when trying to find the right contact within Schools
  • Make sure that you communicate with teachers beforehand and discuss the content, timing, aims and objectives of your activity
  • Children with Special Educational Needs usually have individual support in Primary Schools – it is helpful to be aware of any SEN or disabled pupils in advance in case you need to adapt the activity or timings
  • Practice! Sometimes the simplest things take ages with pupils unfamiliar with equipment, or caught up in the excitement of practical activities. It can be useful to do a ‘test run’ with a small group of similarly aged children.
  • Prepare a Glossary Sheet covering new vocabulary and terms.
  • Have one or two short extension activities that you can give to pupils who finish ahead of the rest, or that can be left as ‘homework’ – e.g. design a poster, Wordsearches, etc. 
Ed: Ready to get started? Check out our Top 10 sources for STEM clubs and activities!

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Activity Idea: Electro-dough

The activity packs for Science Week 2016 are now available and are themed around Space.

One of the "digital space" activities in the Primary Pack is Electro-dough. I hadn't realised that play dough would conduct electricity (due to the high salt content) but, once I knew, I couldn't wait to try it out! It seemed like the perfect half-term activity for me and my two sons (ages 6 and 3).

We made the dough ourselves - weighing and measuring the ingredients and cooking them on the hob. I nearly forgot the food colouring, but adding at the end gave a nice marbled effect until it was fully kneaded.

The dough ingredients are flour, salt, water, lemon juice and oil, so no shopping trip was required. We pilfered some electronic components from their Dad's stash, but you can buy a kit of suitable parts from Technology Will Save us.

The 3-yr-old was happy enough to play with the dough, while I guided the 6-yr-old in making circuits.

He mainly wanted to embed the components in the play-dough, so I spent a lot of time trying to explain about short-circuits and making a "circle" for the electricity to flow in. Even I found it a challenge, though, to think of interesting creations. One suggestion (from the "Technology Will Save Us" website) that we did follow was to separate inner and outer areas of dough (in our case with a plastic cutter); connect the inner to the positive and the outer to the negative terminal of the battery pack; then place the LEDs across the gap:
There are a few other ideas here, requiring various amounts of preparation and extra equipment, but my boys were happy enough to experiment in a more "free-form" way.
Overall, this was a very successful activity. It easily fitted into an hour (not including the time spent picking bits of blue dough out of the carpet!).

UPDATE: Thoughts after my first school visit:

For Science Week, I put on my shiny, new STEM Ambassador badge and spent a day in a primary school, doing this electro-dough activity with 42 Reception, Y1 & Y2 pupils. The children were divided into 5 (mixed age) groups of 8 or 9. Each group session was half an hour long and I had a student-teacher working with me.

I think the children really enjoyed the activity. Of course, some were more tentative than others to begin with, but all the children eventually managed to (independently) make a creation with at least 1 LED; some managed up to 6!

EQUIPMENT (n.b. other sources for these components are available):
SAFETY: As this is a very safe activity, and as there were one or two children who were initially very reluctant to even touch the dough (having obviously been told to never play with electricity), I didn't want to issue too many warnings in my introduction. Fortunately, we made it to the second-to-last group before a child connected an LED directly to a battery box and the LED popped! (When making a circuit with wires, you would connect a resistor in series with the LED, but as the electro-dough is very resistive it isn't necessary, here). Unfortunately, he was quite distressed and it made several of the other children wary of touching anything for a while. In retrospect, in my introduction I should have explained the difference between the electricity in a wall socket and in a battery box and reassured them that, although there are a couple of minor risks to be aware of, they would not get hurt.

The only other thing to note is that the electro-dough quite quickly corrodes the LED legs and the metal ends of the croc-leads, making it hard to get a good connection. Also, some of the LEDs inevitably end up on the floor or losing their legs. For a full day of use, I would recommend having extra components to swap in when necessary.

Friday, 19 February 2016

But what can I do?

There are plenty of organisations keen to see more STEM activity in primary schools.  While much of it is, not surprisingly, aimed at teachers, here’s a list of websites you might find interesting or useful. 

Remember that School Gate SET is here to support you and we’ve had personal experience of engaging with schools.  So whether you are looking for specific advice or just someone to be a sounding board, please keep in touch.

1) STEM Clubs  and also take a look at the Teach Primary article with practical hints for setting up a club in a primary school.

2) Code Club is a very easy way to get involved – the materials are provided, and it is specifically aimed at 9-11 year olds.  They are currently trying to recruit more parents to get involved, so will love to hear from you.

3) Young Engineers have activities suitable for clubs, classrooms or one off events.  They are very experienced at supporting ongoing engineering activities and competitions in schools.

4) The Bloodhound Project is using a 1000mph world land speed record attempt as STEM inspiration. 

5) British Science Association are behind CREST Star activities, British Science Week and some excellent packs full of ideas for things to do.  You can dip into these, or do themed activities – eg Spaces for Science: Science in Spaces, Move It, Colour Chaos, Cracking Chemistry,  Accidental Discoveries.  They also have Super Science which has accessible activities and investigations adapted for children who have difficulty following instructions given purely in text or find it hard to remember verbal instructions.

6) First Lego League is run in the UK by the IET.  In 2016 they are launching Junior FLL for 6-9 year olds.  (Free entry for the first year …)

7) NRich has a wealth of fascinating and engaging maths enrichment ideas and activities.  Also take a look at

8) Primary Engineer  is a well supported high quality programme with activities mapped to the curriculum introducing ‘STEM by Stealth’  which inspire and enthuse children.  They also run the STEM leaders award programme for age 5 upwards. 

9) Practical Action have a series of challenges for schools. Their website includes descriptions of how the resources were used in schools, eg Beat the Flood and the popular Squashed Tomato challenge. 

10) Your local STEMnet contact – they are likely to know what is going on in your area, for example SETPointHerts.  Also check out their STEMNetworking pages for STEM Ambassadors.

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