Annual Review 2014/15

Reaching out to inspire school pupils

Students and researchers have been taking big questions into classrooms as part of a schools outreach project.

Dr Jenny Tait (left) with final-year undergraduate Meredith Adams outside the Institute of Geography.

How can we weigh the Earth? Fingerprint the structure of a molecule? Grow baked beans? These are questions that University of Edinburgh students and researchers have been taking to classrooms, as part of outreach projects to forge links between the University and local schools. 

One pioneering scheme, the GeoScience Outreach and Engagement programme, organised by Dr Jenny Tait, lecturer in the School of GeoSciences, sets a challenge to final-year undergraduate students, to develop projects for five- to 17-year-old pupils, in schools around Edinburgh. 

“Our undergraduate students are working in partnership with school teachers to develop projects which are educational, fun and engaging,” explains Dr Tait. 

Teaching materials are designed by the students in line with the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence – a model that aims to ensure all children develop the knowledge and skills they need to flourish in life, learning and work.

Student creativity 

“I continue to be amazed with the creativity the students show in developing projects,” reflects Dr Tait. “We’ve had everything from hands-on geology, where school pupils get to see a sample of a meteorite, to students explaining the importance of honeybees to school pupils.” 

The programme has proven successful in improving students’ career prospects. “Around 40 per cent of our students have found employment as a result of, or related to, their outreach project,” says Dr Tait. 

One final-year undergraduate, Merdith Adams, found the course rewarding and innovative. “It allows students to think creatively, positively contribute to the Edinburgh community, and develop workplace skills,” she says. “I’d recommend the course to anyone looking to try something a little different.” 

An Edinburgh PhD student who combined her passion for research with an outreach programme is Ms Nicholle Bell, who introduced the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Spectroscopy in a Suitcase scheme to secondary schools across Scotland. The project brings research-level equipment into schools, to facilitate the teaching of spectroscopy – a technique used in all analytical laboratories, such as forensics, to identify and analyse chemical compounds. 

Nicholle developed a scheme for teachers to borrow the equipment and worked with them to enhance the learning experiences of pupils taking Advanced Higher Chemistry. The scheme, now run by a team of chemistry PhD students, has trained more than 230 teachers and has seen 2,000 pupils experience and learn from the kit. 

For Nicholle, it has been encouraging to see how the scheme has increased enthusiasm for the subject of chemistry: “It’s amazing how this kit – and yes it comes in a suitcase! – has been so enthusiastically received by teachers and pupils. Initiatives to raise attainment in Scottish schools are about increasing learners’ ambitions and aspirations. This scheme takes real analytical techniques to pupils, inspiring them to pursue a potential career in chemistry.” 

 This work not only engages and empowers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, it also provides a rich learning and research environment for creative University students.

Ms Dee Isaacs

Working with music in marginalised communities has been the motivation for Ms Dee Isaacs, a lecturer at the University’s Reid School of Music. Over the past 14 years, seven music theatre projects have been devised by her Music in the Community project, involving primary school children from areas of deprivation in Edinburgh. Projects have taken place in creative hubs such as the National Museum of Scotland and the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery as well as in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Ms Isaacs believes that prolonged engagement with the arts helps children gain in confidence and self-esteem. 

“Large-scale immersive arts programmes create a real impact on children,” she says. “They can change the perception of the importance of the arts in school curriculums. Our productions with professional artists and production teams have the highest artistic standards, and it’s a collective endeavour that is transformative. Students give huge energy towards this kind of work because they see the value of it, both on a personal level and for their futures.” 

Ms Isaacs ensures that the projects align with the vision of the Raising Attainment for All programme, launched by the Scottish Government in 2014, which aims for each child in Scotland to enjoy an education that encourages them to be the best they can be, and provides them with a passport to future opportunity. 

But for Ms Isaacs, this is no one-way street: “This work not only engages and empowers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, it also provides a rich learning and research environment for creative University students.” 

Classroom debates

Encouraging aspirations for higher education is the motivation for the University’s Dr David Ward, a philosophy lecturer who, with a team of volunteer postgraduate philosophy students, and colleagues from Moray House School of Education, presents some of life’s biggest questions to classrooms to help pupils cultivate skills for constructive debate. 

Research themes of Edinburgh’s philosophy department – rated second in the UK in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework – feed into these school workshops, which also align with the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence. 

“A growing body of research shows the positive impact that philosophical discussion in the classroom has across the whole curriculum, through helping pupils to articulate views and understand others sympathetically,” explains Dr Ward. 

The focus for the philosophy outreach work is with secondary schools in Edinburgh, particularly those with a low progression record. 

“Some of the questions we have explored to encourage critical thinking are: ‘Can war be the morally right thing to do? Can a robot ever be your friend? Can you really blame someone for doing the wrong thing?’” says Dr Ward. 

“Working with school groups, we get reactions to the material which are very different to the university classroom and this in turn enhances teaching experiences for our young scholars.”