STEM Ambassadors and schools: working together to make a difference

Dr Michael McEllin, Physicist and STEM Ambassador, opening building

Michael McEllin has been a STEM Ambassador for ten years, over which time he has developed a strong relationship with two of his local schools, and is now a non-executive director of STEMWorks Ltd, a not-for-profit Gloucester-based company that provides STEM workshops to a wide range of schools in the region.

Michael shares his experiences of volunteering as a STEM Ambassador and how he works alongside local schools to inspire and engage their students.

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“Come along: it’s good fun!” - the guy sitting next to me had just volunteered for the company stand at the Cheltenham Science Festival. Well he was right, it was fun, and I also met the team who held the STEMNET contract for Gloucestershire, and I thought “Why not?”.

The first solo gig was, however, somewhat daunting: a very short-notice call to replace a no-show on a themed “energy” day at a local girl’s school. It was in front of my daughter’s class of Year 9 girls where, much to her surprise, I made my STEM debut. The call had come after she had left for school, and when “Dr McEllin” was introduced 29 pairs of eyes swivelled towards Alice. I knew then that I had to perform well for her sake. The private feedback from her friends turned out to be not so bad, so I came back for more.

I most enjoy mentoring CREST projects, however, because I get to see students developed skills and knowledge over several months - often surprising themselves. The schools with which I work value the benefits (and I was even recently asked to officially open a new science block, along with my daughter, who is an ex-pupil and now a STEM Ambassador in her own right).

"By working with the same teachers in two local schools, we have honed a process that seems to work for us."

I started with engineering topics loosely based around problems from the nuclear industry, such as how you might try to get foreign debris out of a reactor. Having since retired, I have expanded the projects into physics and astronomy (in which I have a PhD) usually working towards Silver CREST with about 20-30 Year 10 students each year, and a few Year 12's going for “Gold”. The engineering topics still continue, but have passed to someone with current industrial connections.

By working with the same teachers in two local schools, we have honed a process that seems to work for us. The trick, of course, is choosing the topics wisely. There must be a challenge, and the students must find that they have to work as a team to make progress. Yet, you need to be sure that they will eventually see a way through to success. Small teams, 4 or 5, work best though strong, committed students have succeeded in twos and threes.

With the girls’ school, we have a formal approach. An initial mentoring visit poses the problems, followed a little later by a separate discussion with each team to help them find their particular way forwards. The following term, I come back to help them over any problems they are experiencing, and in the summer term, a final visit to ensure a focus on wrapping up.

On each visit, I usually spend half an hour with each team (the girls come out-of-class for the meeting). There are also occasional short-notice visits as required if a team hits a block. This year we have, amongst other projects, learned to download real research data from large professional telescopes and use the astronomical images to study what the colour variations across galaxies tell us about their life history. At “Gold” level, one student with a mathematical inclination made a good estimate of the number of black holes wandering the Milky Way.

The boys’ school next door supports an after-school STEM Club. Currently they are getting a taste of Big Data by exploiting a Europe-wide network of cosmic ray detectors at secondary schools (one of which is on the roof of their design and technology block).

Much of our experience is now codified, and I have developed part of my personal website with the resources specifying projects and giving our guidance on organizing team-work on small projects.

Build a Plane project

Undoubtedly my most memorable project was being part of the mentoring team in the Boeing/Royal Aeronautical Society’s Build-A-Plane project. Over four years about 60 students from local schools constructed a microlight aircraft. It was a particular delight to work with my own daughter, who drilled holes for some of the first rivets, though to the time when she was the first student to fly in the aircraft. (She happened to be the lightest of the core-group who saw the entire project through from start to finish.) Daddy, of course, had to put on a brave face in front of the TV cameras who came to witness the event.

The plane later took part in the flying display at the Farnborough International Airshow - a thrilling first for the students. Last June we celebrated the completion of the final plane of the Build-A-Plane at the RAeroSoc HQ, learning that it had for many been a springboard to subsequent careers, including Airbus apprenticeships and STEM degrees at prestigious institutions - and one embryo actress even explained how the many outreach events radically improved her confidence before the public.

It can all be quite time consuming, but the rewards are very obvious.

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