How science week changed my life!

A photo of IDCMC Student

Claire Jeavons is an EngD student focusing on advanced cost engineering for application in manufacturing research and development. She is sponsored by Rolls-Royce and is based at the IDC in Machining Science - a unique collaboration between the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the Faculty of Engineering.

Claire started her EngD in 2013 after many years in engineering having achieved her BEng in 1999. Formerly a process improvement engineer specialising in discrete event modelling and simulation of manufacturing processes, she has also worked in a range of industries as a research consultant.

She is a STEM ambassador, primary school governor (STEM) and Director of Moti-Lab, a social enterprise funded by The Young Foundation that has designed and produced a mobile STEM teaching resource for primary schools, early years and SEN settings. She has also recently joined The Brilliant Club as a PhD Tutor on their Scholars Programme, an opportunity for doctoral and post-doctoral researchers to gain teaching and public engagement experience.

Here, Claire shares her experiences of STEM awareness as a child of the 80s and how an opportunity to meet with a group of engineers from the University of Sheffield as a Year 6 student changed her life and future career path.

I grew up in the 80s and my experience of science in primary school was scarce. I recall less than a handful of experiments, the most memorable one was a blindfold-tasting experiment to study our senses and we also dissected a pig’s heart, but I’m squeamish so found that one a struggle.

I was ok with most subjects at primary school but practical subjects and maths were my favourites. I loved playing with Lego and Meccano at home and building with balsa wood and soldering bits of metal. I hadn’t heard of engineering; the internet didn’t exist. My Dad was a neuroscientist so I had more science capital than most of my classmates, but I still wasn’t aware of the range of careers using science and maths that were accessible to me.

Then 30 years ago when I was in Y6, a group of engineers came in from the University of Sheffield for science week. They told us about the huge range of science and engineering careers available to us and I was mesmerised.

I guess like many 11-year-olds, I thought engineers were blokes who fixed cars and telephones, not people who design and make pretty much everything we could see around us. I was very aware of gender bias even at that age, I got laughed at for having an action man instead of barbie or my little ponies and so when they described the roles of female engineers it was really exciting, I could actually see myself as an engineer.

Then they gave us our challenge.

The engineers gave us a pile of newspapers, a golf ball and a roll of masking tape. The challenge was to keep the golf ball off the ground for the longest time possible. I was in my element and designed a marble-type run right across the wall of the classroom with my teammates, we were so engaged in the task, excitedly following the ball down the track at a snail’s pace, jumping with excitement as it turned the corners.

It taught us about problem-solving. Many times the ball fell off to shouts of ‘booooo’ and we needed to fix the run, but we saw this as a challenge. We were learning about resilience - it was ok to make mistakes, and then try again.

They also encouraged lots of questioning and got us to really think about and test the physics involved in the task, how the angles of the runs affected the speed of the ball, and how reinforcing the runs helped when the ball fell from one run to the other. Even the shyer classmates were eager to stick their hands up, ask questions and get stuck in, more so than I remembered in any other lessons.

Our team did so well we had our picture in a local paper, the six of us grinning from ear to ear in front of our ‘engineering masterpiece’ – that photo was proudly displayed on the wall of our classroom for the rest of the year.

It was at that moment I realised I wanted to be an engineer. These visitors opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities.

30 years on I’m studying for a doctorate in engineering, sponsored by Rolls-Royce after a career in a range of engineering fields. I’ve been passionate about inspiring children in STEM for over 10 years in my roles of STEM ambassador, STEM governor and more recently as a Brilliant Club tutor. I particularly enjoy telling young girls I’m an engineer - even now they open their eyes wide in surprise and quizzically ask questions about my role!

Science week is a fantastic opportunity to get children experimenting, solving problems and linking their STEM subject to the real world. There are so many wonderful resources out there to try and many of them are free.

Science week can be amazingly inspirational for children but we need to capitalise on this for the rest of the year by providing them with engaging hands-on STEM activities in school to increase their science capital and produce the scientists of the future. I’m incredibly proud to be a director of Moti-Lab. With the right resources and equipment, all primary school teachers can run exciting and engaging curriculum-linked lessons in science and practical maths and who knows how many children will have their eyes opened to the wonder of STEM subjects by learning in a practical way.

It’s fantastic to think that children can recreate the same experiment I performed 30 years ago and experience the same awe and wonder that I did from such a simple task. Learning in this way means children pick up far more in one afternoon than if they are ‘taught’ about maths and science.

These types of lessons children really remember, increasing science capital at primary school has a huge effect on the subject choices a child makes. It had a profound effect on me and I passionately believe it will have a profound effect on others too.

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