Why science? Why mathematics?

Cheney school student Coral fills us in on how she's been inspiring other young people to get involved in STEM enrichment since taking part in Mathematics Masterclasses.

At the Ri we coordinate a national network of Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science Masterclasses. We work with bright and enthusiastic young people, nominated by their schools, to allow them to explore the wonders and applications of these far-reaching subjects in a series of extra-curricular workshops. Sometimes we get the opportunity to hear about what these talented students go on to do after their Masterclasses.

Coral is a student at Cheney School, Oxfordshire, whose participation in Secondary Mathematics Masterclasses, as well as the input of her inspirational Maths teacher, led to her realise how exciting mathematics could be. In 2015 she organised an event for students at her own and local schools to showcase applications and careers in mathematics and science. She invited a range of local experts to deliver talks and showcase their research, allowing the students to gain an insight into the myriad possibilities available to those who choose to study STEM subjects.

Coral has shared her story with us and hopes that this will inspire other young people to get more involved in STEM enrichment in their own areas:

It all began with Ada Lovelace Night.

On 14 October I attended an event featuring a line-up of female speakers from different areas of science, speaking about their work and their experiences as women in science. The event, Ada Lovelace Night, hosted by Science Oxford, featured 2013-2014 Christmas Lecturer Alison Woollard, and Sally Le Page, a doctoral student who is well known for her Shed Science YouTube videos.

Inspirational? Absolutely! As I sat listening I thought, wouldn’t it be fantastic if everyone at my school had the opportunity to hear speakers like these. Midway through preparing for our GCSEs, many of us could do with a dose of enthusiasm and inspiration, and with A Level choices up ahead I thought it couldn’t hurt to be reminded of the wide range of careers open to those who choose to take their interest in maths or science on to the next stage. I was also very aware that many of my friends seemed to underestimate the importance of maths for careers in subjects like psychology, sociology or computer science.

In Oxford we are lucky enough to be surrounded with fantastic and inspirational scientists from all imaginable fields. I put together a list of scientists I had heard talking in the past, people I knew were all enthusiastic and excellent speakers. Some I had heard being interviewed on Radio 4, some from the Ada Lovelace Night, and some from other events Science Oxford had organised, like the FameLab science communication competition. I asked two of my teachers if I would be allowed to invite them to come and talk at our school. It took a while for them to get the idea approved and fix a date but as soon as we had a date I could go into action.

After a great response from those I got in touch with, I had a fantastic list of speakers. Now I needed an audience. I wanted to encourage as many people as possible to attend – but how many people would have the energy to sit still and listen to more talks if they were tired and hungry at the end of a long school day? If we held the event in the evening, how many would bother to come back to school for it? 

We decided the answer was to begin with 45 minutes of hands-on activities straight after school, before the talks began. This would also give time for students from other schools to make the journey to join our event. 

It worked! As people came out of school they saw a drone being flown beside our Assembly Hall. When they stepped inside, they spotted Artie the robot. Although a lot of people had signed up in advance, there were also many who just looked in to see what was going on and ended up staying for all the talks. My fantastic team of volunteers stood at the doors of the hall, encouraging everyone who passed by to pop in and have a look around. Several such people told me afterwards that, although they didn’t think they were interested in science, they came in out of curiosity and were surprised to find themselves fascinated by one of the activities or speakers.

  • Cheney School students meet Artie the robot.

  • The engineering challenge.

  • Crystallography activities. 

  • Coral.

This is how our school newsletter described the event:

Tuesday 13 January saw one of the most amazing student-led activities at Cheney in recent years. Almost 300 students, parents, visitors and staff packed the Assembly Hall for an hour of fun activities led by scientists from Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities ... An Autonomous Intelligent Machine flew above the tennis courts while Artie the Robothespian, a lifesize robot sang popular hits inside, while students tried their hand at crystallography, DIY science, hands on activities from Science Oxford, and a fiendish quiz and found out about careers and university courses. They then heard short inspiring talks from six speakers: Geoff Pascoe of the Oxford University Mobile Robotics group, about self-driving RobotCars; Hillary Shakespeare and Sam Albanie, about the new industrial revolution led by intelligent machines; Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg, about Magnetic Resonance Imaging; Karolina Chocian, about genetics; Famelab finalist Jonny Brooks-Bartlett, about the maths of X-ray crystallography; and Rebecca Cotton-Barratt about Maths in our everyday lives. It was fascinating to hear about cutting edge work going on in Oxford, to reflect on the way it will change our lives, and to learn about the different and often surprising career paths which these scientists had followed.

And this is what Rebecca Cotton-Barratt of the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford and local Ri Masterclass organiser, had to say about Coral's event:

Coral showed fantastic initiative in organising this event. The students all showed an enthusiasm and willingness to engage with science and maths, even though we couldn't really compete with the singing robot! Such a diverse range of speakers meant that they were able to see the real, often unexpected, applications of working in STEM. The evening was a resounding success, and I only hope more students are inspired to run events like these.

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