GCG Volunteer Programme Review: STEMNET
Can you explain why the sky is blue or how a computer works? Do you get a buzz out of helping others with their algebra homework or showing them how to take a car apart? Could you talk for hours about saving water, creating materials or designing new apps?
If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, read on to find out about volunteering with STEMNET, a national charity that creates opportunities to inspire young people in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).
Who does this suit?
If you love your job, have a go because all you really need is a desire to get someone to love their work as much as you do (Elizabeth Orchard, STEM Ambassador)
For those who study, work in or are interested in STEM and like to motivate and encourage others, STEMNET’s STEM Ambassadors programme facilitates and supports volunteers looking to share their specialist knowledge and enthusiasm with young people.
You don’t need a specific qualification. But you do need to be brimming with excitement about your favourite subject and get kids in schools or colleges hyped about it too.
An ability to cope with distracted pupils and some quite testing behaviour at times is important. Shy, introverted types might struggle; being good at holding attention is a must.
It is marvellous to give students the opportunity to see practical aspects of STEM and meet people working in STEM careers. It brings the theory to life (Edward Wesson, Head at The Skinners’ School in Kent)
STEM Ambassadors are asked to take part in at least one activity a year, which could range from a twenty-minute talk on what you did after GCSEs via Skype to a three-day science fair. Be prepared to commit a minimum of half a day, although shorter opportunities are available too.
You’ll also need to keep half a day free for induction. After that, STEMNET offers plenty more training opportunities if you feel your volunteering skills need a boost.
Don’t expect handholding: STEM Ambassadors deliver classroom activities by themselves, but schools are obliged to ensure that a teacher is present who can be called on for support if things become difficult. Fellow volunteers will also help smooth the way, especially if you’re a newbie.
What do STEM Ambassadors do?
STEM Ambassadors rev young people up about STEM by helping them to understand its relevance in their lives, not just their exam papers. They also talk to them about career opportunities in these subjects.
It’s all about engaging pupils in activities that bring learning to life. They’ll show them how something in a textbook can be applied to real-life but in a way that really captures their imagination.
Those with specialist or technical training give teachers and students a unique perspective on the STEM curriculum and how it can be demonstrated in the world of work. They are also well positioned to discuss career options with young people and the path that they chose for themselves.
What activities can you do?
STEM Ambassadors give talks or help out at careers fairs, run CV workshops, mock interview sessions or other activities aimed at developing employability skills.
They also help with classroom projects, support after-school STEM Clubs, or engage pupils in practical experiments and demonstrations. You can choose to work with primary or secondary school students, or both. You can also suggest ideas or adapt a programme to suit your own schedule, or expertise.
How to sign up
Register to become a STEM Ambassador by visiting the STEMNET website. This takes you to a secure page where you will be asked to fill out you’re your details. You are also asked select a sub region so that you can be allocated a regional STEMNET ‘contract holder’ who will be your main point of contact.
What happens next?
A STEMNET contract holder (an organisation that runs the STEM Ambassadors Programme on STEMNET’s behalf in a particular local area) contacts you within five working days to arrange a three-hour induction session to familiarise you with the programme and outline your responsibilities. They also help you to arrange a security check, which takes two to four weeks to come through on average.
Once approved, you will be sent your logon details for the website, giving you access to a list of activities and requests from schools local to you.
The induction session includes classroom-based scenario activities and role-play exercises to help first-timers feel confident about going into schools.
Volunteers can also sign up for additional training to improve their communication skills, or to help them transform their good ideas into a hands-on activity. Training takes around two hours. There is also online support, including videos, toolkits, online training modules and resources.
How is the work co-ordinated?
The vast majority of volunteers take part in activities that they were sent by their local contract holder, but some get in touch with the schools directly. If you have a cool idea for an activity or event, STEMNET will help develop it with you, but if there is a school you know well, you might choose to bounce ideas around with them.
If you are still at school, you will not be able to count activities within your own school as STEM Ambassador activities.
What help do you get?
STEMNET will help you plan your activity. You can also discuss your presentation with the teacher who made the request and ask them to check it beforehand. They’re generally quick at spotting technical jargon and will advise you on adapting your language to suit a particular age group.
Volunteers have access to a treasure trove of resources and, in some cases, they may elect to bring equipment from their work along to activities to demonstrate, for example a Stixx Machine, which can be used to build life-sized structures. We’re told this is a big hit with the kids, especially the younger ones.
What are the challenges?
Whether you’re having a post-lunch slump or are excited about some after-school event, you know what it’s like to lack focus in class at times. A few distracted students won’t then come as a surprise. ‘You’re bound to come face to face with some tricky classes’, said one volunteer.
While some disruptive behaviour is inevitable, none of the volunteers we spoke to reported a serious problem when delivering an activity.
The most common challenge volunteers face is capturing and sustaining young people’s attention. It helps to be interactive and to encourage them to ask lots of questions, we were told.
You might be eager to share your passion for a subject with young people but feel daunted by the prospect of being faced with class of 20 students. Don’t let this put you off; it is possible to arrange activities with smaller groups.
How is the time managed?
Classroom activities usually slot into lessons and teachers are generally very good at keeping firm time boundaries. It’s a school not the army so don’t be surprised if your activity is delayed 10 minutes because of the school basketball competition.
Some activities can be exciting and stimulating and the kids will need time to calm down. If it’s something like Lego, you may have to limit the activity to 30 minutes even if you have a whole hour.
How is the work followed-up?
Your contract holder will contact you after an event to find out how it went. You can also fill out a feedback form to include any concerns you have or suggestions for improvements.
Everyone we spoke to told us that STEMNET is great at keeping in regular contact and always look for ways to improve the experience. One volunteer told us that his contract holder occasionally sits in on his classes to review how everything’s going.
From time to time, things can go wrong, such as turning up to a school only to find out you weren’t expected. When these things happen, STEMNET are quick to investigate, we were told.
Involving your university or college
If you would like to become a STEM Ambassador but feel pushed for study time, you can ask your university or college to support your volunteering. The same applies if you’re working in a job – many businesses understand the importance of enthusing the next generation of UK employees in STEM and are willing to allow their staff time to engage with students.
WHY I’M A STEM AMBASSADOR
Don Clarke, a lab-based analytical chemist, became a STEM Ambassador seven years ago through his employer, Pfizer. He said:
‘I do science demonstrations that have a link to our industry, such as how to put a tablet together or make water from the River Stour drinkable. We’ll work out what kind of plastic a coke bottle is made from using infrared equipment, which they like because it produces “really cool wiggly lines”.’
Swetam Gungah, a product specialist for S&P Capital IQ, a financial information provider, has been a STEM Ambassador for over three years. He said:
‘I’m passionate about helping kids to become more science-literate, especially those who aren’t specifically interested in science. I do this by showing them the relationship between STEM subjects. I might bring in an iPhone – something they can relate to – in order to demonstrate the combination of science, technology and design that goes into making the product.
I also help primary school children with task activities, such as building a rocket or do quick one-to-ones with A Level students who want to know about the options available to them once they finish their studies. I help them to get a feel for the job market.’
Mark R. Smith, a freelance physicist based in Wales, has been a STEM Ambassador for four years. He said:
‘I was a bit daunted the first time I went into primary school but it was great to see the enthusiasm on their faces. The level of their questions impressed me; they have very inquiring minds. You hear so much in the media about young people not being switched on to science. But in my experience, there is a lot of interest out there.’
Paola Domizio, a histopathologist based at Royal London Hospital, has volunteered with STEMNET for five years. She said:
‘The events are usually very well organised and a pleasurable experience. It’s rewarding when a child approaches you afterwards to say it was really good or that they want to be a scientist when they grow up.’
Elizabeth Orchard, a former winner of STEMNET’s Most Dedicated STEM Ambassador award, said:
‘STEMNET employees are very passionate about their job. They work hard to ensure STEM Ambassadors are well supported and are some of the nicest people you could choose to work with.
It’s an absolute buzz. The thing that motivates me is when I see a kid who’s been really struggling with something but then gets it after they’ve seen how it can be applied to real life. It’s about that light-bulb moment.’
What the teachers say…
Assistant head teacher at Horndean Technical College in Hampshire, Matthew Evans, said:
‘Students attending the events get a lot out of them. They’re not just in a school lesson – they’re working with real engineers to solve real engineering problems, and the enthusiasm of the Ambassadors is contagious. They genuinely want to support activities that will motivate kids into a career in their field.’
Beth Jones of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation’s Science and Engineering Education Team, said:
‘By supporting teachers with practical activities and taking their own ideas into the classroom, STEM Ambassadors provide context for practicals and give students the opportunity to experience new techniques.’
For more information about the STEM Ambassadors programme, click here.