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6th Class Teacher in Galway Educate Together National School (GETNS)
This talk was presented at the Irish Area Section of Biochemical Society STEM Outreach and Education Workshop, Monday December 7th 2015
How I got involved with Cell EXPLORERS...
Hi everyone my name is Barry McGuire and I teach 6th Class in Galway Educate Together National School here in Newcastle. First off I would like to thank Muriel Grenon for inviting me today and it is a privilege to be able to speak to you about my experiences of STEM Outreach.
When I mentioned to the children in my class that I was asked to speak at a workshop full of scientists they said that I should start with a joke so here goes:
“What did the biochemist do with his twins? He baptized one and used the other as a control.”
Over the years Galway Educate Together has been fortunate, by its close proximity to NUI Galway to have had a lot of outreach in the fields of Science and Technology and none more so than through the close connection we have forged with the Cell Explorers thanks to Muriel. The Cell Explorers first visited our school back in 2012 and since then they have returned at least once a year with bigger and better workshops to challenge and inspire the children.
What Children and Parents have said to me about Cell EXPLORERS visits...
After their most recent visit to 6th Class in November I asked the children what they thought about it. Here is what one child said: “I really enjoyed learning all about the diseases and symptoms and the best way to help people when they got sick. It was great we got to work in small groups trying to figure out the problem together and the scientists from college were really helpful and nice and made it all so easy to understand.”
Over the years parents have frequently commented on the positive impact STEM outreach has had on their children. After the Cell Explorers last visit I received an email from a parent who said: “Our son has never before expressed any interest in science. As a result of the Cell Explorers visit he has become obsessed with science videos on youtube and wants to be a scientist when he grows up.” I myself have noticed a marked improvement in the 6th Classes attitude to science since the Cell Explorers visit and it has forced me to up my game significantly!
On another note I recently bumped into an ex-pupil of mine from a long time ago who is now studying Theoretical Physics in Trinity College and he told me he can trace his interest in the field back to a visit to our class from a Professor of Physics in NUIG in 2004 to talk about the Transit of Venus.
So what makes STEM outreach so important?
In the short time that I have with you today I will tell you about some of the positive experiences I have had with outreach, why I think it is important and give you some tips on how to enter the world of STEM outreach from a primary teacher’s perspective.
I started teaching in Educate Together 15 years ago and in that time I have had lots of different groups visit my class and conduct demonstrations and practical workshops with varying degrees of success. Several of these visits encouraged me to adapt my own approach to science teaching and inspired me to get my class to exhibit at the Galway Science & Technology Festival. The exhibits my class and I prepared for the festival were typified by extravagant costumes, colourful posters, exciting video displays and resources which, we felt, made science look “cool” but lacked any real depth or substance or practical engagement with the public. In hindsight I realise that I had completely underestimated how deeply children could engage in science activities in a meaningful way.
In 2012 Muriel approached me and asked if my class would be interested in participating in a workshop entitled “How Clean is our Classroom?” and hosting an exhibit based on our findings and conducting a similar practical investigation with the public at the Science & Technology Festival.
In my opinion it was a new departure for the Galway Science & Technology Festival. They had seen nothing like it before. Primary school children confidently engaging with the public, talking about their exhibit and fielding questions. The workshop and subsequent exhibit at the festival were a resounding success and that year we won “Best Exhibit in the General Sciences”. The following year we again took part in the Festival with the help of the Cell Explorers where we designed an exhibit on ‘Human Cellular Respiration’. This time we took the top prize for “Science Communication”.
Talking about the success of his class's GSTF exhibits...
So what made these exhibits so successful?
In the lead up to the festival the children participated in a series of workshops lead by undergraduates from the Biochemistry Dept. here in NUI Galway. These students were themselves very well prepared. They had diligently researched the topic and worked out how best to adapt the material and the language so as to appeal to children of a primary school age in a way they could understand and relate to. They had resourced the workshop well and conducted a risk assessment anticipating almost every eventuality. They were passionate about their field and engaged easily with the children.They delivered a series of workshops that were age-appropriate, of high interest, interactive and allowed for individual and group investigations.
In the final preparations for the festival the children were well-versed in the language and we had rehearsed the steps of the practical investigation over and over. Of course we had some cute kids in some cool bacteria costumes working the room as well but that was just for fun.
Why is outreach so important in Primary School?
As primary school teachers we are expected to be experts in a variety of subject areas. We have been trained to teach a curriculum as if it were a finite opus that cannot be expanded upon. Knowledge, particularly in the fields of STEM doesn’t work this way. For most teachers there is no way we can keep abreast of all the current research, evolving scientific theories and their applications in the same way as you can. For most teachers it is very difficult to impart the same level of knowledge, and express the same passion and enthusiasm as you can for your field of study.
You [Scientists] are the ones who can really inspire a love of science. It is so important for children to have the exposure to experts working in their chosen field and to learn directly from them. As young, enthusiastic, confident, focused students you provide good role-models for children and this cannot be overstated. You take science out of the laboratory and into the classroom and make it real for them and offer a real world context of science for them. You encourage the children to think how science is used in everyday life, how it relates to them and that it is something that they can make a part of their lives.
From an educational perspective outreach offers the children the opportunity to develop and refine many transdisciplinary skills such as interpreting and collating data, conducting research, presenting research findings, problem-solving and working collaboratively.Outreach offers the children the opportunity to engage in the ‘scientific method’ which is a difficult concept for them to grasp and for the teacher to simulate in the classroom.
Delivering Outreach in Primary school is "Pure Fun"
If you would like to take a meaningful step into outreach then please do not dismiss the primary school. From the moment you walk into the room you will have a captive audience who will be hanging off your every word, with open minds inhibited by no preconceived prejudices. And best of all devoid of all exam stress. It is pure fun!
Start small at first. A simple 15 minute presentation about what you do with a few pictures or a video will suffice.When you feel your confidence growing you can think about challenging the children a little bit more with a simple interactive demonstration or practical investigation.
My advice from there on in is to be well-resourced, well-prepared, and know your audience and most of all have fun!