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Catapulting careers in STEM – meet our placement student

Wednesday 11th May 2022

If you’re considering a career in STEM, there’s a world of opportunity waiting! Earlier this year we were delighted to welcome a PhD student from Sheffield University, Ruth Thomas, who joined us for her Professional Internship placement. Ruth explored her interests in science outreach and communication with our thriving education and engagement programmes at the Science Oxford Centre and across the wider region, and with our STEM Careers Programme for young people. From delivering our Live Lab sessions – where families meet real-world scientists as part of their visit to the Centre, to building giant catapults at our Arti-Techs after-school club, it’s been a fantastic experience for all. Read Ruth’s blog about her time with us — and why she is more passionate than ever about inspiring young people with science!

“I am currently working towards a PhD in Biomedical Science at the University of Sheffield. Over the last couple of years, particularly with the pandemic, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of communicating to a wider audience the work that we do as scientists, particularly the younger generation!

Aquarium to Zebrafish…

As part of my PhD I was lucky enough to be able to undertake a three month placement, a chance to get out of the lab and work in an area that I may potentially want to work in after I finish. During my time in academia, I had been involved in various outreach events including welcoming local primary schools into our aquarium to learn about zebrafish and running stalls at the Maker{Futures} events in Sheffield. I loved being involved, but had little experience of the organisation and planning that went into such events. I began searching for an opportunity that would allow me to continue delivering science outside a classroom but also experience the ‘behind-the-scenes’ running of such a company.

Discovering Science Oxford

Having grown up in Bicester, I had fond memories of family visits to the museums in Oxford and after a little research into outreach companies nearby, found Science Oxford. I contacted Andrew Kensley, the Head of Outreach Education and Training, and pitched the idea of taking me on for my PIPS (Professional Internship for PhD Students) placement. Thankfully, he thought it was a good idea!

During my time in Headington at the Oxford Trust’s Wood Centre For Innovation, I have been involved in several aspects of the company, including working with secondary school students during STEM Insight Weeks, helping to introduce them to potential STEM career paths. This was also the case during the Bucks Skills Show, an event held at the Westcott Centre in Buckinghamshire, where various companies set up stalls aimed at students looking for work experience. Our van de Graff generator was very popular with staff and students alike, producing static electricity to make their hair stand on end! I also assisted with the various shows and workshops that Science Oxford take into primary schools ranging from Rocket Mice, using air to launch paper ‘mouse’ rockets, to using the planetarium to see an astronaut on the moon!

As well as heading out into schools, I also got the chance to work in the new Science Oxford Centre, assisting with school visits and family days. Interacting with not only the children in our Exploration Zone, but also the adults that come and try out the exhibits was incredibly rewarding. I was also involved with the after school club, Arti-techs, in which I ran a session where the students designed and built Bamboo Catapults that would fire wet tea bags as far as possible, some of them managed up to several meters!

Launching giant catapults at Arti-Techs after-school club 

However, if I had to pick a highlight, it would have to be the delivery of my Live Lab. Funded by the Evolution and Education Trust, this pop-up event runs alongside the Centre Family Days as an additional activity for visitors to conduct min-experiments. It also allows them to meet researchers from local universities to find out about the science experiments they do every-day! My PhD is in genetics, and so I based my Live Lab on the instructions for life (DNA) and how we can extract DNA from strawberries, using things you can find in your kitchen. Although unsure at first, the look of amazement on the faces of the children when they realised what they had managed to do was fantastic.

Extracting Strawberry DNA – Ruth led a drop-in Live Lab activity at our holiday Family Day

The best bits…

My experience here has been invaluable; I have learnt the importance of allowing young people to experiment, rather than trying to get them to the ‘right’ answer. More often than not they will find a way to solve a puzzle that you hadn’t even thought about! Asking open questions, and not expecting them to know the answer has led to some interesting conversations with pupils, it really encourages them to think outside their pre-existing knowledge. Many of the young people that arrive at the centre have pre-conceptions that they are ‘not very good at science’, but after spending the day experimenting in a fun and relaxed manner, they leave with smile on their face and a renewed enthusiasm for STEM.

Working at the Science Oxford Centre is definitely an experience I’d recommend. The chance to interact with and inspire the younger generation in STEM has been incredibly rewarding and although I am now heading back up to Sheffield to finish my PhD, I will take with me the skills I have learnt from my time here and will definitely be looking to continue my journey into science outreach!”

Check out our STEM Careers Programme for young people, and our next STEM Insight Mini-Week runs 30th May – 1st June 2022, for year 10s. Hybrid in person and virtual talks, tours and skills workshops with local STEM companies on the theme of renewable energy. Free to attend, apply by 20th May.

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