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A year of science engagement with local primary children

Over the past year, volunteers from across Edinburgh BioQuarter have been delivering hands-on science activities to primary school children based in the local community.

The activities were delivered through a series of online STEM Clubs, run in partnership with four local schools – Castleview Primary School, St Francis Primary School, Prestonfield Primary School and Niddrie Mill Primary School.

In total, three series of STEM Clubs took place between October 2020 and June 2021, providing 24 activities to 173 pupils.

A response to the pandemic

© Sandy Young Photography

The clubs initially began as a response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, building on previous engagement activity between the schools and Edinburgh BioQuarter.

In the summer of 2020, after being approached for help by local teachers, the BioQuarter raised funds to deliver 1,350 Curiosity boxes (STEM activity boxes) to families based in the community. The aim was to provide fun, hands-on activities to support them during the difficult summer months of lockdown.

The boxes proved to be a great success, providing families with ideas for activities, along with the resources required to carry these out at home.

The STEM Clubs were designed to build on the success of the boxes, continuing to deliver science engagement activities to primary children on their return to school in the autumn.

Delivering the online clubs

The first series began in October, initially run as a weekly after-school club. It was delivered in hour-long virtual sessions to 15 pupils from each participating school, who joined either from home or from the classroom.

The second and third series took place during the spring and summer terms. This time, the clubs were delivered during school hours to a full class from each school, with the support and help of teaching staff.

Each session comprised of a fun ice-breaker activity, followed by a hand-on science experiment. These were delivered by STEM professionals from the BioQuarter, providing the children with a unique opportunity to engage with real scientists.

The children were able to take part in a wide range of activities, covering many different science subject areas. This included building paper rockets, making toothpaste, growing cress and extracting their own DNA.

Activity boxes were delivered in advance of each session, containing all the resources required to take part in each week’s activity.

Volunteer motivations and benefits

Twelve BioQuarter-based STEM professionals volunteered to help deliver the STEM Clubs

They represented a variety of roles and organisations from across the campus, including PhD students, senior University researchers and professional services staff.

The volunteers expressed a wide range of motivations for getting involved, with some keen to improve their science communication skills and others driven by a desire to support local families affected by the pandemic.

“My main motivation for getting involved in the STEM Clubs was to gain experience in science communication and improve my confidence. When I first signed up, it’s fair to say I had no idea what to expect or what I was doing, but that quickly changed as I found my feet.

However, I also had more personal reasons for wanting to get involved, as I grew up going to a widening participation school myself. I never had the opportunity to meet real scientists until I went to university, and I knew I would have benefited from activities like this when I was in school.”

Almost all the volunteers felt they had benefitted from taking part, with the clubs providing a much-needed injection of positivity, in addition to helping them gain new skills and experiences.

“It was really rewarding running the STEM clubs. It was something to look forward to, especially during lockdown where every day does look similar.”

“The STEM clubs made me slow down, take some time to see the magic of science through the kids eyes!”

“Since taking part in the STEM Clubs, I’ve gained the confidence to get involved in more science communication and outreach work. Last year, I became a registered STEM Ambassador, and have worked directly with schools to deliver activities.”

The volunteers all undertook initial training, with further support available throughout the year from the BioQuarter’s community engagement team.

Impact on pupils and teaching staff

The STEM Clubs were delivered in partnership with the schools, with teaching staff playing a major role in facilitating the sessions from the classroom.

Feedback from the schools has been extremely positive to date, with staff sharing the benefits to children.

The children loved taking part in the sessions. Particularly this year when there have been so many restrictions in extending learning. The sessions raised awareness of STEM and developed their skills in all these areas.”

“There were huge benefits to the children! They were able to explore science in a hands-on way, work with others to discover, create and experiment with different materials and predict what might or might not happen.”

“My group enjoyed hearing from real professionals/scientists. One girl was quite inspired!”

The teachers themselves also felt they had benefitted from their involvement.

 “I learnt a lot from the sessions and completed experiments which I might not have been comfortable to do in class before.”

“It covered STEM outcomes in a way in which I wouldn’t have had the skills and certainly the resources to carry out. Additionally, while not ideal, I really enjoyed doing the sessions online as it exposed the children to Teams and I built confidence using it also. It was a nice experience as a teacher to use online learning in this way. I will also use these activities with other classes.”

Extending reach through collaboration

The STEM Clubs project was delivered by the Edinburgh BioQuarter community engagement team in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Edinburgh’s King’s Building Campus.

In addition to the four clubs delivered by BioQuarter volunteers, another four were delivered by King’s Building volunteers to schools in their neighbouring areas of Moredun and Gilmerton.

Through this wider collaboration, around 250 children in total have been able to benefit from engagement with science professionals over the past year.

Cathy Southworth, BioQuarter’s community science engagement manager, said:

“STEM Clubs was an inspiration for all of us involved; I’m not sure who benefitted most – the children or the staff! We all looked forward to the weekly sessions and everyone grew in confidence with the new online format. It was such a privilege to work with such dedicated teachers and volunteers and to support them during difficult times.”

Edinburgh BioQuarter volunteer Emma Wilson shares her experiences of delivering online STEM Clubs to local primary school children

My experience with Edinburgh BioQuarter’s STEM Clubs