Thursday, 1 September 2016

NEWS: The School Gate SET is evolving

Thanks to our Ingenious funding, we are now working more closely with Jan Peters and Karen Dickens. Jan founded the Science Sisters project, which helped to inspire the School Gate SET, and Karen was one of the original members. They are both passionate about science and technology communication.

Jan and Karen will be helping to develop and deliver our confidence-building and training workshops for career-break parent volunteers. The workshops will be held in and around Hertfordshire and Dorset during the next academic year.

In the coming weeks, we will also be hosting a series of webinars, discussing the School Gate SET project and answering questions about how you can get involved. The schedule, so far, is:

Wed 29th June at 9:30am: Kate Bellingham talks to Jan Peters 
‘Beyond ‘listening to readers' - how I helped support STEM at my children’s school’

Wed 6th July at 10am: Kate Bellingham, Jan Peters, Karen Dickens, Helen Roberts
'The School Gate SET FAQ'

If you can't join in, live, recordings will be available afterwards on the Facebook page and blog. 

Please sign up to our mailing list to receive updates about the webinar series and all our other news.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The School Gate SET FAQ

School Gate SET FAQ from Jan Peters on Vimeo.

Don't have time to watch the recording? Questions and answers are summarised below...

"Why are you focusing on Primary Schools, rather than Secondary?"
Parents tend to develop a closer relationship with their children's primary school. There are more events that parents are invited to participate in and more calls for help (e.g. supervising class trips, listening to readers, fundraising etc). We want to make it much more common to extend this help to science, technology and maths. Primary school teachers need to have knowledge of a wide range of subjects, but many of them do not come from a STEM background and can really appreciate extra support in these areas. Finally, the primary school years are when mothers, in particular, are more likely to be on a career break or working part time and so have time to get involved during the school day.

 "I want to help out in my nephew/grandaughter's school. Is the School Gate SET only for parents?"
Of course not! The important thing is that you have the time and energy to build an ongoing relationship with the school. You might also be interested in signing up to the STEM ambassadors program. They will arrange a DBS (criminal record) check which will allow you to work with and inspire young people across a number of schools. 

"My daughter is only in nursery.  There’s not much I can do to help such little ones. "
We hope that the school will want to take advantage of expert help across all year-groups, not just your child’s class.  For example, we have had a Mum whose child is in reception giving Forensic Science workshops to Year 5 & 6.  

"I work full time for an engineering company but I’d really like to help..."
Does your employer support the STEM ambassador program?  Many companies are aware of the looming STEM "skills gap" and are keen to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. They may give you time off to work in a local school.

"Does it matter what kind of STEM background I have?"

Not at all. It's important for children to be aware of the wide range of careers available to them and to realise that science, engineering and, of course, technology underpin so much of modern life. For example, a parent who works in graphic design ran a very popular after-school club teaching computer animation. Please be aware, though, that to take part in the Ingenious workshops, funded by the RAE, we do have to give priority to parents with a background in engineering.  

"Does it matter where I live?"
No, we want the School Gate SET to be a nationwide project. We are very active on social media; post all our news and activity ideas online; and are happy to chat via Skype or e-mail. Note, though, for Ingenious funded training workshops we have a very limited budget for travel, so these will be taking place in and around Hertfordshire and Dorset.

"What will I be expected to do?  I’m very out of touch with my science background!"
It's important to talk to the school about how you can adapt your interests and skills to the school’s needs. We can provide plenty of ideas and advice for that initial conversation. It's not necessary to stand up in front of a whole class of children: you could administer the school website/computing equipment; suggest activities to extend and enrich the curriculum; or help with the paperwork for, e.g., the Primary Science Quality Mark.

"What is the commitment if you join up?"
Our School Gate SET members are all volunteers, so any time you can spare we are grateful for. We hope that you will want to become a STEM Ambassador and develop an ongoing relationship with your school.  For the Ingenious workshops there will be one training day (confined to school hours) and delivery of at least one activity for the school. 

"What is the Ingenious training? When and where will it happen?"
The training will focus on confidence building and Strengths assessment; tips for working in schools; and the opportunity to practice delivering a specific engineering activity. We anticipate that the workshops will run in October 2016 so that you will be ready to go into schools to support "Tomorrow's Engineers" week between the 7th and 11th of November.

"Strengths" assessment...?
We will be using the Gallup Strengths Finder tool, a personality-type tool which helps to identify what your unique skills are and how they enable you to work best and relate to others. This can be particularly important if you are thinking of getting back into the workplace after a career break, but is also really useful for working in schools as you can recognise the children's different learning styles and adjust your approach to engage meaningfully with them. 

"How do I keep in touch?  I don’t do Facebook or Twitter."
Keep an eye on this blog and/or sign up for our newsletter. Don't worry, we won't bombard you with e-mails: just an update once or twice a term plus any really exciting news we have to share!

Got any more questions? Ask us in the comments...

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Webinar - Beyond listening to readers

School Gate SET - Beyond listening to readers from Jan Peters on Vimeo.

Here's the recording of our first webinar, recorded on 29 June 2016.

Grab a coffee and find out how Kate Bellingham and Jan Peters started helping with STEM in their children's schools, and why they are now leading the School Gate SET to get more parents and schools involved.

Webinar 2 is here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Science Week STEM event: Dough day!

Graphic designer, Lindsay, has 2 children, ages 9 and 7. As well as being a governor at her children's school, she designed and administers the school website. Last term she ran an after-school animation club, showing pupils how to make stop-motion films using an iPad app.

The early-years teacher at Lindsay's school, Claire Eagling, heard from some of her pupils how much they were enjoying Lindsay's club. Claire wanted to organise a "STEM" day during Science Week, specifically for Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. She had read about the "Electro-dough" activity on the School Gate SET website. Also, one of her pupils' favourite activities is a "dough disco", which promotes fine motor skills. All these ideas came together in her head and inspired her to plan a "Dough Day".

The children would be divided into groups and cycle round several dough-themed STEM activities: electro-dough; stop motion "clay" animation; making play-dough; cornflour goop; and the dough disco. The day would begin and end with a discussion: asking all the children what it means to be a Scientist or Engineer, and seeing if their answers changed over the course of the day.

Lindsay ran the animation activity, with help from another two parents. As the school is local to me, and as I recently registered as a STEM ambassador, I went along to help with the electro-dough activity.  The teachers and classroom assistants delivered the other activities.

Some of the children’s ideas before the day:

  • “Science is making potions”
  • “Science is finding out about bones and dinosaurs”
  • “Science is doing experiments”
  • “Science is concentrating”
  • “Technology is making electric stuff that can change the world”
  • “Technology is things that have plugs like computers and iPads and ovens”
  • “Engineering is fixing stuff that’s broken – Iron Man does engineering”
  • “Engineering is making stuff that people have never seen before”
  • “Maths is adding up and finding what it is”

 And during the day:

“You take pictures and move your dough a little bit each time and when you’ve taken loads of pictures you’ve got a film. We did 208 pictures!”

 “Quicksand sinks but you don’t sink all the way into it and I experimented with the animals in the cornflour and they sunk but not all the way down. It was wet at the top and stiff at the bottom.”

“The electric goes through the dough to make the bulb light up!”

 At the end of the day:

The children really enjoyed their STEM dough-day. One 6-year-old girl said “I wish it could be like this every day. I’m going to be a scientist when I grow up!”; while one of the boys said “I am a scientist now! They do electrics!”

Feedback from the teachers and teaching assistants was also positive:

 “I didn’t realise that dough would conduct electricity. It’s exciting to have some expert help to teach this as I’m not very confident teaching Science.”

“The children have got so much out of the day today. The fresh ideas that the parents have brought to the table have proved very successful.”

In fact the teaching assistants, who had previously expressed a preference to stay with the same activity all day, said that, in retrospect, they wished they had had a chance to take part in all the activities and share the children's experiences.

If you are interested in organising your own "dough day", or similar event, Claire has made her planning available here. It includes links to the National Curriculum and to the School's topic for the term, Africa.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Press Release: Engineer? Technician? Parent? The School Gate SET wants you!

We're pleased to share our press release for the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious funded project.

Please view, download, share and generally spread the word.  The focus for this project is on engineers, technologists and technicians based in the South Coast region or in Hertfordshire - but we are still keen to hear from parents with interest in all STEM fields and in all areas of the UK as we grow the network.

Friday, 29 April 2016

ANNOUNCEMENT: Royal Academy of Engineering "Ingenious" Award.

We are very excited to announce that The School Gate SET has been awarded an RAE "Ingenious" grant! This awards scheme supports innovative projects that engage the public with engineers and engineering.

awards scheme for projects that engage the public with engineers and engineering - See more at:
Over the next three months we will be recruiting 40 career-break engineers, technologists and technicians whose children are in primary school. As well as the existing School Gate SET activities: building a relationship with their children's school and supporting the STEM curriculum; these parent volunteers will be invited to register as STEM ambassadors and to attend specially designed training workshops.

These free workshops will be held in participating schools in Autumn 2016, during the school day. They have been developed by project co-ordinator, Kate Bellingham and certified Gallup Strengths Coach, Jan Peters, both long-time champions for women's participation in science and technology. The agenda will include:
  • ice breakers & experience sharing
  • strengths awareness
  • introduction to a technical hands-on activity along with advice on how to deliver this to pupils with different learning styles/backgrounds.
Participating parents will also be encouraged to (re)connect with professional organisations, such as the Women's Engineering Society (WES), The IET or The IMechE, who can suggest opportunities to resume their career in a way that fits in with family life.

To minimise travel costs, these workshops will initially be running in Hertfordshire and Dorset, but we want the School Gate SET to keep growing, nationwide, and will continue to provide online support, activity ideas and mentoring.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Meet the Mentor: Filipa Vance

School Science Club? Just do it.

I love Science. I really do!

I love the challenges it poses, the buzz of making sense of problems, the excitement of checking whether an experimental approach has worked, the never ending questions and, above all, the fact that we learn something every step of the way.

Having said that, it will come as no surprise that I like to talk about Science, too. I like to discuss thoughts and ideas; I like to hear other people’s views and thoughts on anything from Maths problems, to antibiotics usage. More recently, I have discovered the joy of talking about Science to primary school kids. I have learnt so much from their bright, young, unbiased minds and I have been challenged in a way that I never imagined possible.

In October of last year, I (finally) managed to set up a Science Club at my children’s school, St Louis RC Primary School in Frome. It was not an easy thing to do, I have to be honest. It took me almost 2 years to get a Science Club going and, in hindsight, I must admit I was the one who slowed it down. Had I been more confident in my ideas I could have set up this club long time ago.

It all started back in 2014 when I joined ScienceGrrl and, together with Becky Smith, formed the Oxford Chapter. Our ambition for this Chapter was clear – we wanted to act locally and share our passion for STEM with the next generation. The Chapter allowed me to meet fantastic ScienceGrrls with diverse science-based careers: from communicators to helicopter engineers. The group we formed was inspiring in more ways than one and planted the seed to go out to the community to talk about Science. We did the usual festivals and fairs but I never managed to develop the close relationship I had hoped for with any local schools. I was working full time at that point and about to move away from Oxfordshire, so things were a bit chaotic.

In late 2014 my husband was offered his dream job and so we moved to the South West. It quickly became apparent that moving kids away from friends, changing school, football team etc. was going to be challenging. So, to give the children the support they needed, I decided to take a career break of sorts. I found myself a part time job at the University of Bath and started to help out at their school with the usual tasks – reading, taking kids on walks and days out. The idea of a Science Club was still very much inside my head but I was not sure how to get it off the ground. I contacted the STEM Ambassadors, and enrolled to become one. The induction course was great and I really enjoyed it. All of their courses are free and the follow up sessions are always very informative.

I continued to help out with reading at the school and mentioned my newly awarded ‘STEM Ambassador’ status to anyone who would listen. Teachers are busy people and the road not taken is often a scary one. In fairness, I could have tried harder. It wasn’t until this academic year that my words fell on the right ears and together with Ms Hannah Jones, Science Coordinator at St Louis RC Primary School, we established a weekly Science Club. My pitch was simple:
  1. This will cost you no money
  2. You will not need to do anything. I will do everything from devising the sessions to tidying up afterwards.
In return I asked that they would promote the Science Club on the understanding that both genders would have to be equally encouraged to attend.

What followed was a series of fun filled lunch time sessions where we investigated why belly flops hurt (water tension), how we can get marshmallows to grow (air pressure) and how we can make raisins dance (densities of matter). Unfortunately, we have not managed to clone any dinosaurs as yet, but the request has been duly noted.

All activities are designed to ignite passion amongst pupils for Science in general, whilst at the same time challenge gender stereotypes associated with all science-related jobs. The Science Club runs on Fridays at lunch time. There is no charge associated with the club and all (except pre-school pupils) are welcome to attend. There are 2 sessions of 30 minutes each. Each session takes 10 pupils who attend on a rolling basis. There is no budget for this Science Club (see point 1 of my pitch above) so I’m always looking for free stuff (from CDs to bottle tops). It is great to see the support from the whole school with parents bringing in half of their recycling box to the office with donations for the Science Club. This demonstrates how funds are not really an excuse to stop you from having a Science Club in any given school. It also has the added bonus that sessions are skewed towards experiments which can be done at home with every day materials.

The Science Club has already grown and, in addition to the Friday sessions, I organised a one-off whole day session with Yr1 on ‘Why do green leaves go brown?’. With a view to introducing pupils to jobs in a Science related subject, the whole of KS2 went on a trip to the Somerset Earth Science Centre. Every Yr3 to Yr6 class had the opportunity to spend a whole day at the Centre learning about rocks, their uses and how to classify them. They also got to visit the Moonhill Quarry and make their own volcanoes erupt. The School also arranged to be part of Bath Taps into Science during Science week which was great to see.

Sometimes, I’m not sure who has more fun, the kids, myself or Ms Jones, who has been absolutely amazing in her support, and instrumental with ensuring that attendance is high. Her support and real passion for Science is very valuable to me and I really enjoy running new ideas by her. Her expertise on how to teach kids is very important for the success of this club. The kids’ attitude towards science is definitely changing and I can honestly say that there is nothing more rewarding than sharing knowledge with young minds and watching them develop a positive attitude towards the world around them. After Science Week the majority of Yr4 wanted to be marine microbiologists. Before that, I’m not sure how many of them knew that was even a career!

If you are thinking about setting up a Science Club, my advice to you is, just do it! There is plenty of material on the web which you can use, plus organisations like The School Gate SET and STEMnet offer plenty of support. I know it is daunting to come up with your own plan for the duration of the session and that is why I have set up a webpage where I will be documenting my ‘lesson plans’, together with details of the experiments and the necessary risk assessments. You can also find me on twitter @PipaVance so please get in touch if you would like to discuss science clubs in more detail.

About the Author:
Filipa Vance is originally from Portugal. She studied Microbiology at the University of Glasgow from where she also graduated with a PhD in Cancer Studies. She worked as a Postdoctoral Researcher at Imperial College before embarking on a career in Grant Management and development with the Wellcome Trust. She now works at the Bath Institute for Mathematical Innovation and lives in Wiltshire with her husband and her 2 kids.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Activity Idea: Angry Birds Catapult

For my final activity idea for the week - Angry Birds Catapult *-  I must give full credit to Phil Robbins, the STEM Ambassador who co-ran the Pixies Hill STEM Club with me for 2 years.  I realise Angry Birds is a bit out of fashion these days, but this is a great build-and-play and gives the chance to learn about so many physics principles while you do.

We actually ran this session with a different construction technique and using part of an egg box as the launcher for the catapult.  We set up blocks (previously used for Jenga bridges) and cotton reels (previously used for cotton reel tanks) for the angry birds (decorated ping pong balls) to be launched towards.

The children had great fun and it was a very popular session but, ever the engineer, Phil wasn't satisfied and worked on the catapult design to make it more reliable and robust.  Not only will this prevent upset due to breakages, it will also enable the children to learn more - if a repeatable action creates a repeatable outcome (such as pulling the launcher back at a certain angle sending the ball a certain direction) they are better placed to understand the relationship between the actions and outcomes.

The Angry Birds Catapult pdf * now shows how to make a sturdy and impressive catapult using the following:

We would love to hear of someone giving this a go. Please post pictures!  If you don't have access to a shot glass or the means to drill holes in it, you can always resort to egg box sections .....

*  I'm not sure why the annotations don't show up well when I look at this document online, however, when it is printed out, all seems to be clear and legible!

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Activity Idea: Cracking Bar Codes

This activity will open children’s eyes to something they take completely for granted ... bar codes. 

I’m including a pdf of my "Cracking Bar Codes" powerpoint slides you can use to show the children, or you could adapt the information yourself and just talk them through it. To be honest, the slides aren't great - I'm sure someone could come up with a simple worksheet which would take them through step by step, writing down 'their' bar code digits as they go. 

What you need:
  • items with 13 digit bar codes. (These are the most common, but there are shorter ones which work differently) 
  • paper and pen for each child to do the calculations.
  • A4 or A5 sized paper in 3 colours (optional).  


Try to include several items where the first two digits are not 50, and several from the same supplier / manufacturer.  You can include books and magazines.  Aim to have one item per child for them to then pass round, so nothing that could be damaged!

I also found it useful to have A4 or A5 paper in 3 different colours to write the bar code digits on for the children to hold.  I allocated 13 children one digit of the code and then sat them on a row of chairs to turn them into a ‘human’  bar code:
Digits 1,3,5,7,9,11  written on yellow paper
Digits 2,4,6,8,10 and 12 on green paper. 
The final 13th check digit was written on red paper, so when when they come to add up alternate digits, it is very clear which need adding together and they remember to leave the check digit out of the calculation.  I then called out for yellow or green to stand up so they were added up more easily. 

This activity is really only suitable for upper primary.  In addition, more able mathematicians can be set researching how the lines correspond to the numbers (not straightforward) and what kind of ‘errors’ would cause a barcode to be rejected (eg neighbouring digits swapped or a 5 misread as a 6).

The comment about ‘short cuts’ is to get them to think about whether they need to include the complete numbers throughout the calculations or just the units  - in my example do you need to add 30 and 81, or just 0 and 1? This could lead to an interesting discussion and a method of trying to search for situations where this would not be valid. 

The check digit (or check sum) concept is used throughout digital communications systems, and most people are completely unaware of it.  However, it is the kind of 'fascinating fact' that primary children will love taking home to their parents and then show off that they know how the calculation works. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Activity Idea: Jenga Overhang

Activity Idea: Jenga Overhang

This challenge is to see how far you can get the furthest Jenga block to stick out beyond the edge of the table.  No tape, glue or any other materials can be used – just the blocks.  And it must be free-standing so no fingers used to counterbalance.

To make this work for a class / club, I recommend starting with 9 blocks for each team of 2 or 3 children.  There are 54 blocks in a standard pack, so you would only need 2 Jenga packs.  If you do have more, they can of course go on to create much more impressive structures. 

This doesn’t just entertain primary aged children – academic papers have been published on the maths behind the different types of structure.  These are worth a look for the images they include, which may spark off new ideas, either for you or the children. 

From 'Overhang' 2007 Mike Peterson & Uri Zwick

If you want to extend the activity you can include new challenges:

  • furthest overhang where there is only one block on each level, ie a slanting stack
  • highest structure with an overhang of one complete block – remember the blocks can go on end
  •  if you double the number of bricks can you double the length of the overhang?  Can you predict how much overhang you could get with 3 times as many bricks? 

I recommend taking photos of the structures, as they are bound to be knocked down whether intentionally or by someone bumping into them.  

Another interesting way to record the work is to encourage the children  to create a lifesize picture the structure by drawing round a block as a template. This may help them visualise the physics behind what stays up and what falls down and enable them to plan new structures more effectively. 

There is also a simple interactive game which allows children to explore the concepts virtually on the excellent NRich website called ‘Tower Rescue’.

You will inevitably find some children want to be more creative rather than functional with their Jenga blocks.  And why not?  In 2009 there was an artwork at the Baltic Centre in Newcastle called ‘Overhang’ and visitors were encouraged to take inspiration and make their own artworks from bricks.  

Have fun!  And do please post pictures, whether of overhangs or other works of art. 

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