The satisfaction of sharing science
At the STEM Inspiration Awards in November 2018, Didcot Girls School took home the title of Outstanding STEM Club, praised for its impact on girls' career choices and love of STEM it has inspired. We spoke to club leader Lynn Nickerson about her tireless work to bring STEM to life for her students.
It’s the end of the first day back after the Christmas break and I’m tired. My colleagues are heading for the staff room or enjoying a cup of tea but I’m wheeling a trolley of equipment into a science lab, followed by a crowd of eager students. However, I soon forget my tiredness in the buzz of enthusiasm and practical work that is Science Club. Most after-school clubs don’t begin till next week, but Science Club is on today.
I think consistency is one of the keys to our success: week in, week out, for over 20 years we have been running hands-on STEM activities and students know that “If there’s school, there’s Science Club”.
Today is the start of a crystal-growing project and I show the girls how to make a saturated copper sulfate solution. They work in groups to stir the blue powder into warm distilled water and I show them some of the beautiful diamond-shaped crystals I’ve saved from past years. The girls who grew them are adults now – some of them are professional scientists. We set the solutions aside to cool and see how many famous scientists we can name. I’ve seen a request in Chemistry World for schools to do this - there seems to be a lack of awareness of famous women scientists.
I’m encouraged to see that our students can name quite a few, although I’m not sure about “Ronald Franklin”. Was the girl who wrote that thinking of Rosalind?
During the week I check on the copper sulfate solutions. Some are producing suitable crystals, others aren't. As long as we get enough seed crystals for everyone that’s fine. I don’t tinker with the solutions. It’s good for the girls to discover that if their solution wasn’t saturated, then it won't produce any crystals. Next week they will make alum seed crystals, so if there was a problem, they can work out what went wrong and try again.
"I want STEM to be seen in the same way as art, sport, music or drama - something that enriches the participants and the school and is worthy of celebration."
The following week we have our usual attendance of 40+ students who each tie a tiny seed crystal onto cotton thread. The seed crystals dangle inside little plastic pots awaiting the addition of more warm saturated solution. I’ve learned to prepare this crucial solution myself. If it’s not fully saturated, the seed crystals will dissolve and all that's left will be an empty loop of cotton.
I do believe in letting students learn from their mistakes but I don’t want them to get discouraged. The crystals we grow will go into a display cabinet so everyone in the school can see them. I want STEM to be seen in the same way as art, sport, music or drama - something that enriches the participants and the school and is worthy of celebration.
Plans for the rest of the term include making “geodes” with alum crystals in eggshells, three sessions of microbiology with a parent who is a microbiologist, surveying the school field for worms (the BTO’s What’s Under Your Feet project) and visiting a local science festival. It’s important to keep the activities varied so that the girls (and I) don’t get bored.
I’ve found that a mixture of challenges, competitions, creative activities and chemistry works well. Most activities can be turned into a competition: who can make the loudest hydrogen pop? Or whose paper snowflake falls the slowest?
Science and creativity make a great combination. We had a mini art exhibition after making “magic paper” with red cabbage extract and filter paper, and then using acids and alkalis to make a range of colours. Before Christmas, we made borax beads on copper wire and twisted these together into “chemistrees”, one of which won the RSC Chemistree competition. In previous years we’ve written and performed science dramas, made short films and put together workshops which we’ve taken into local primary schools.
Senior Science Club meets after school on a different day. Students here are working on different projects. Some are finishing off Silver CREST Awards, others are making DNA models; they are more independent and I’m more of a mentor than a teacher.
The age group and the activities might be different, but ultimately both sections are about sharing my enjoyment of science with young people, creating an environment where it’s ok to fail, supporting them to find out what went wrong and to try again, to be curious and to enjoy practical science.
It does take extra time and effort to plan and lead the sessions, I sometimes cast a wistful glance at my colleagues who can have that cuppa after school, but the satisfaction of sharing STEM without learning objectives, exercise books or assessment makes it the highlight of my week.