For widening participation practitioners nationally, whether working on behalf of institutional outreach teams or for Uni Connect Partnerships, Covid-19 has taken us out of our happy places, usually school classrooms or on-campus events and stuck us at home, in front of a screen… our less happy places!
After the shock wore off and our teams settled at home we’ve made the most of the time and space. We have shifted our minds to ‘creative ‘pilot’ mode’ and wow…have we been busy!
Outreach has largely become ‘in-boxed’, with an outpouring of fabulous online resources and experiences helpfully arranged into lesson plans and bite sized chunks for students to access at home through virtual learning environments like ‘show my homework’. In and amongst work sheets and resources have been links a plenty to live ‘virtual’ conferences, workshops, talks and insights.
But how do we know if it’s getting read and how do we know if that virtual encounter is meaningful? Covid-19 has caused all sorts of new problems for our most disadvantaged students but the pre-existing dilemmas like not enough girls in STEM, national skills shortages and disadvantaged students not attaining as highly as their more advantaged peers in core subjects still remains. Ensuring the continuation of meaningful encounters around STEM subjects was our biggest concern for Pathways, a Leicestershire based Uni Connect Partnership, but we had to find a balance between meeting student’s educational needs and keeping them safe. Social platforms, such as Zoom and Facebook, though common, were generally frowned upon by colleagues and you can talk yourself out of sending students pens and paper if you let your mind dwell on worst case scenario paper cuts. After hours spent reading privacy fine print and reassured by colleagues who are teachers, we decided to deliver the most easily accessible programme we could devise using common platforms such as Zoom and Facebook. We posted the students supplies to undertake experiments at home and took a common sense rather than overly paternalistic approach to risk assessment. We committed to evaluating the programme in depth and sharing our learning far and wide - I’m pleased to confirm the programme was successful and nothing bad happened… despite posting students Citric Acid as part of the package!
We enlisted the help of Benita Percival, a PhD student at De Montfort University who made time to work with us between her shifts at a Covid testing lab. Benita brought enthusiasm and vibrancy to our programme and I feel bad admitting that in normal times we probably wouldn’t have worked with our PhD colleagues, but academics in the scientific disciplines were stuck behind their computers to preparing for a ’learning online’ start to the 2020/21 academic year. Benita reflected that “studying A-level chemistry is actually a really relational experience involving hands-on, close contact laboratory classes, with around 30 students on wooden benches, typically doing experiments in pairs or small groups” .
For Benita as an early career researcher, developed and delivered teaching material for the first time using the Crest Award ‘Fizz Chemistry’ pack as her basis. Benita brought the scientific environments to the students digitally, by providing video tours of higher educational facilities, hospitals and private high-throughput laboratories.
Risk was mitigated by working with the students to formulate their own risk assessments and suggesting parental guidance for parts of the experiment. Students were able to see chemistry within their own home.
From Benita’s point of view: ‘‘The real advantages of teaching health and safety elements at home was helping students recognise the hazards present in their own households, including washing up powder and bleach, and helping them to understand the chemistry behind these compounds. It really brought their school curriculum teaching to life and into the real world- into their home” .
“Having formulated their own risk assessments, students created bath fizzers using citric acid and sodium bicarbonate and watched these react in different conditions. I showed students where resources were online for them to educate themselves – from following inspirational scientists on Twitter, to getting involved in their local Royal Society of Chemistry branch” .
Overall, the programme was successful- attendance was high and stable amongst the 50 students. Of a total of 350 possible attendances, only 13 (3.7%) were absent.
Feedback from the students shows their experience was meaningful with one student commenting “The club was a very useful experience to develop new skills and learn new theories and formulas as well as to learn more about the roles of scientists and careers linked to science” .
Albeit a physical connection was not formed, which is typical for a classroom environment with teachers able to be hands on and show students experiments, a digital connection was established. Forums created aided with this connection, with the use of Facebook and Zoom chat ensured that students were able to collaborate, discuss and expand their knowledge, similar to the buzz of a classroom environment. Although Benita was unable to see their faces on the zoom screen, their probing questions through these forums revealed piqued interest in the scientific content delivered. They were able to respond to the facial expressions and personality of their hosts. Benita commented that “students could see my smile, demonstrating my passion for the subject, which, if we’d met in person, would have been hidden by a mask”.
Another comment from a student said that ‘it was very interactive and the hosts were very kind and easy to ask for any sort of help.’
Students could revisit the actual sessions from the day rather than just relying on notes or memory- in this way there were was a greater level of support then could be provided usually - Benita could walk them through the session again and again. The on-demand features are optimal for students who may be having troubles at home- being disrupted by siblings as an example. Of course, the programme may have been enhanced by being onsite at universities, with equipment such as analytical balances, thermometers, pH meters being available which was recognised by the students showing their passion for innovation and developments in their own scientific bubble at home.
Other problems identified by students were IT related issues such as internet connection which varies from households – these are extremely hard challenges to address. Other questions Benita considered included: Are there were more students who would have liked to take part, but who could not afford or get access to a phone or the internet to tune in? Or was the family laptop being used by parents or siblings who now were having to work from home? Although the internet poses great power in the ability to connect with audiences worldwide, there are barriers to reaching the most disadvantaged.
However, the clear advantage is that some students are scared of asking questions in large groups, feeling foolish that they don’t know all the answers. Using Zoom, whereby they are not identifiable may have given them the confidence to speak up and ask questions they would not normally ask in the classroom using the chat function. They are not comparing directly with each other and are focused on their own task and their own development. The students all won unique awards during the course based on their fizzer’s beauty, size, explosiveness and colour. Benita was able to gauge their scientific interest from their content sharing in the format of pictures and videos of their fizzers, rather in the typical way of observing students faces light up in awe of a successful experiment. A thorough evaluation report that showed all of the learning objectives were met, students did not feel they had significantly missed out having to undertake the programme virtually and none of the potential risks we had assessed materialised.
As one student said in their feedback, 'never be scared to make mistakes as we all make mistakes. It’s whether we’re willing to learn from them that sets us apart from everyone else.’ We should not be discouraged from inspiring the next generation through testing times and this will only help us innovate and adapt our outreach activities further for wider participation.
Beka Avery is the project manager for Pathways, one of 29 partnerships in England funded via the OFS Uni Connect Programme. The Pathways team supports young people living in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. Beka is based at the University of Leicester.
Dr Benita Percival is an hourly paid lecturer at De Montfort University and Nottingham Trent University. Benita has played an integral role in Covid-19 testing in the past year, working at UK Biocentre and leading a laboratory at the University of Birmingham
I would like to thank the Pathways team and De Montfort University outreach for this opportunity, and Geraldine Williams and Tom Studd for their contribution to co-teaching and marking on the course.
Pathways works across Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. To find out who your local Uni Connect partnership are visit the OFS website: https://www.ofsuniconnect.org/
 Percival, B (2021) Pathways to Success Chemistry World 22nd January 2021 Available Online Accessed: https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/pathways-to-success/4012944.article [23/01/2021]