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Inspiring young people about STEM

Wednesday 25th October 2023

Science Oxford aims to inspire young people about STEM, but it isn’t only children who are inspired through Science Oxford’s work.

Graham Quelch, aka ‘Mr Q The Science Guy’, unlocked his passion for engaging young people about STEM over 25 years ago. He was working in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford and supported one of The Oxford Trust’s workshops for children. Since then, he has continued to engage and excite young people in learning about science. Chain reactions like this help many more children discover a love for science.

Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with him at the Science Oxford Centre and chat about his fascinating career in STEM and his work with young people.

Always pursuing learning

Graham calls himself an “academically-challenged scientist”. Challenged by dyslexia, he left school at 16. But that didn’t stop his pursuit of learning. His philosophy is to try and learn at least one new thing every day. Then, he says, “by the time you’re nearly seventy, like me, you’ve had plenty of days to gain knowledge!”

He credits his childhood neighbour, Mr White, with sparking his curiosity for science. He says, “Even now I think, if I could go back in time and meet anyone, I wouldn’t choose a famous scientist like Einstein. I would choose Mr White.”

Mr White gave Graham a crystal set radio he had built, which Graham promptly took apart and couldn’t put back together. Mr White patiently showed him how it worked, and a fire for learning was ignited. “I hope to be someone else’s Mr White,” says Graham. “You never know when that spark will be lit in a child.”

Part of Oxford innovation history

After leaving school, Graham joined the then Oxford and District Water Board, where he worked for nine years. During this time, he also attended classes at Oxford College of Further Education and specialised in physics electronics.

He then boldly went to Oxford Instruments and asked for a job. He found himself part of the company’s renowned innovation story as one of the team working on the electronics assembly of the first commercial superconducting MRI whole-body scanner. “It was exciting and I was very proud to be part of it,” says Graham.

He fondly remembers Oxford Instruments’ founder, the late Sir Martin Wood – also, of course, co-founder of The Oxford Trust – who was always hands-on throughout his time at the company. He recalls a day they were working out some wiring in the workshop, when Sir Martin took his jacket off, tucked in his tie and got down on the floor with them.

Sharing his love of physics and electronics

After eight years with Oxford Instruments, Graham joined the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, where he worked for 28 years as a technician, starting in the Picosecond Laser Group, then moving to the Laser Spectroscopy Research Group.

Expecting to continue working at the University until retirement, he had started dreaming about his future. He wanted to buy a van, kit it out with equipment, and go out to support STEM teaching in schools.

Then, a former PhD student, who he had supported as a technician in the department, became head of physics at an independent school in Oxford. She knew about his passion for working with children and how knowledgeable he was, and asked him to join the school as their Physics Technician. He has been part of their team for seven years.

The need for skilled technicians

Graham is thinking about his future retirement once more. He says there is a dearth of skilled technicians and “it isn’t a career path young people are encouraged to follow.” Apprenticeships in his area of expertise rarely exist anymore, but he hopes this is changing. “You need hands-on people who know which way to turn a nut and have a variety of skills,” says Graham.

The support of Science Oxford

When Graham first crossed paths in 1998 with The Oxford Trust’s STEM education work, the brand of Sceince Oxford was yet to emerge as the education and public engagement arm of The Oxford Trust’s work (in 2005). The Trust was running the local ‘Neighbourhood Engineers’ network and our own local volunteers programme, and then took on the local running of the STEM Ambassador programme from 2003 to 2019.

With the support of such programmes, Graham went on to develop his own talks and shows to excite, engage and help children learn about science. In 2015, he was a recognised as the “longest standing STEM Ambassador” by Science Oxford, and thanks Science Oxford for the many years of support.

Graham Quelch shakes had with Steve Burgess in front of Science Oxford pull-up banner

Graham (left) receiving his award in 2015 for his contribution as a STEM Ambassador from The Oxford Trust CEO Steve Burgess

Throughout his career, Graham has jumped at opportunities to engage young people, and is a regular highlight with Scouts, home educator groups, and at career days and other public science events. His “Mr Q’s Eclectic collection of physical phenomena” talks include concepts such as optics and light, electricity and magnetism, the history of gunpowder and how fireworks work, among others.

Guiding learning

He says he tries to explain science concepts in a way that he understands them, as an “academically-challenged scientist”, trying to use analogies that others understand. “Children learn in different ways and it’s our job to figure that out and tailor their learning. If I explain something and you don’t understand, either I haven’t explained it properly or I don’t understand it either. It’s never you, the learner, it’s me, the explainer.

“In order to talk about something, you need to know a lot more than you’re going to talk about.” He smiles and adds, “Kids will ask some very tricky questions!”

Through the years, Graham hopes he has succeeded in being others’ ‘Mr White’ and, as children who have been inspired by Graham make their own contributions to STEM, we hope this chain reaction will continue.

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