Kate’s heading to Antarctica!

Long-term NUSTEM partners will recognise Dr. Kate Winter’s name as our sometime admin assistant, and might even have wondered where she’s disappeared to in recent months. Well, we have news: we found her.

In Antarctica.

It’s a bit more planned than that. Kate’s returned to geology research, won herself a big support grant, and is heading out to Antarctica for two successive summers – which means, upside-down world and all, that she flies out any day now.

We’ve started a page of information about Kate’s trip and her research. Fingers crossed she’ll manage to get some updates to us while she’s living out on the ice, and maybe even a picture or two: we’ll post updates!

Can parents help ‘nudge’ students into choosing STEM A-levels?

When young people are asked who has provided them with careers advice and guidance, the most common answer is ‘parents and family’, followed by ‘teachers’.

The Behavioural Insights Team (sometimes known as the Nudge Unit) apply behavioural economics and psychology to understand the choices that people make, and help people make sensible choices.  They often run research trials which test out different interventions to see which is the most effective. They have worked with the Department for Education, National Health Service, with HMRC, with local councils, police forces, and many other organisations.

Now the team are looking to see if parents and teachers can help encourage their girls to choose STEM A-levels, and need secondary schools to sign up to be part of the trial.

The two interventions include:

  • Sharing a website with parents that provides information about the usefulness of STEM and guidance on how to talk to their child about A-level subject choices
  • Short classroom based activities targeted at students to overcome the perception that STEM is not ‘for them’

Both of these interventions link closely to what NUSTEM is doing in the North East, so we’re really interested to see the results of the trial.

If your school would like to get involved, there are more details in this pdf, and you can contact Kathryn or Jessica at the Behavioural Insights Team.

Kathryn.Atherton@bi.team  or Jessica.Hunt@bi.team

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week

This week is Tomorrow’s Engineers Week. Back for its sixth year, the themed week is led by Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and involving basically everyone else who’s big in engineering in the country. At NUSTEM we have a packed week of engineering-themed support with our partner schools, including:

  • Team newcomer Mel is out delivering her Systems Engineering workshop with several of our partner primary school. Expect mechanical puzzle-solving and plenty of chasing after marbles.
  • Secondary specialist Antonio is delivering an engineering-themed assembly in several of our partner secondary schools.
  • Our resident digital maker Jonathan is running a Maker Club, and will be at Virgin Money’s STEMtastic day on Thursday – both themed around digital networks, Internet of Things, and … musical robots. Because that’s the way we (rock and) roll.
  • Our sixth-form lecture this Thursday is on the mathematics of fractal geometry: book your place at that link!

If we can’t get to you this week (hey, even we have limits… like, ‘being in two places at once’, we’ve not worked out how to crack that one yet), or the evening lecture doesn’t suit, there are still opportunities to get involved. On Wednesday the central organisation is hosting a live-streamed Big Assembly, with features from a ‘Dynamic Dozen’ of young professional engineers. Or – parents and teachers – explore research published this week which indicates the parents’ guidance to their children tends to emphasise careers which they think will make a positive difference to the world, and that ‘engineering’ is high on that list. Or explore the range of careers ideas and information available at the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week forms part of the Year of Engineering, where you’ll find even more engineering-themed inspiration, background materials, can careers information.

Sixth Form Evening Lectures: the 2018 edition

How Physics and Maths Make a Difference in the World

Each year NUSTEM organises a series of Sixth Form Evening lectures for students in North East schools.  With the help of Northumbria University’s academic community and local employers we explore how physics and maths are used in the world around us.  The aim is to show students that Physics and Maths Matters! 

Physics and maths intersect in so many different areas and lead to so many different post-16 choices that we want to showcase that to young people (and sometimes their families).  Here in the North East we have nationally and internationally renowned research and industry, and NUSTEM is proud to be able to host speakers at the forefront of these developments.

2018 has been recognised as the Year of Engineering. Engineering fundamentally relies on strong foundations in physics and maths, and the transferable skills that people who study them develop. With this in mind the 2018 NUSTEM Sixth Form Evening Lectures will open with a fantastic lecture on fluid dynamics and it applications in Mechanical Engineering.

One lesson we have learnt over the years is that the lectures appeal to a wider range of people than Sixth form students. Even though we have Y12 and Y13 students at the heart of these lectures we encourage schools to extend the invitation to Y10-Y11 students and their parents/carers, to come along and find out how fractals, hydrophobic surfaces, smart materials, waves, and electron scanning microscopes matter in the world around us.

Our series of evening lectures take place every Thursday from 17:30 to 18:30 at Northumbria University starting on the 4th of October. You can register to attend here.

 

Summer Holiday Happenings

One of the great things about working in the university, is that we get to hear about the interesting research that our colleagues do.  Now you can do the same.  Over the summer, our friends in Geography and Computing are running family workshops as part of their research, and they’d love for you to come along and find out what they do.

  1. Craft workshops

David Verwij is running crafting workshops as part of his research into the ‘Internet of Things’ (no electronics involved).  And as a special treat he is offering Stroopwafels – a delicious Dutch caramel biscuit.

Monday 23rd July and Thursday 26th July between 1pm and 4pm at Ampersand Inventions in Newcastle.

For more details and to book tickets use this link.

2. Treasures of Newcastle workshop

Join geographers Jon Swords and Mike Jeffries as they explore the treasures of the North.  What do YOU think makes the north special?  What needs to change?  If you like maps, or colouring, or treasure, or all three then pop in to this drop-in session.

On Thursday 26th July between 11pm and 3pm at Great Museum of the North: Hancock.

3. Great Exhibition of the North Family Expo

Join NUSTEM, and a host of other organisations, at GETNorth Family Expo.  We’ll be taking our robot orchestra along for visitors to have a go at making their own musical instrument playing robot!

On Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th August at St.James’ Park, Newcastle.

For more details, visit the GETNorth website.

 

Do pop along to one or more of these events – they should be great fun.

Plan B

As part of the ESH Building my Skills programme each year, NUSTEM staff take part in a mock interview day with students from North East secondary schools. During the day, students have the opportunity to be interviewed once or twice by representatives from local businesses and other organisations.  At NUSTEM we see the interviews as part-practice and part ‘behind the scenes’ to gives students an insight into what they might be asked and why in an interview.

I ask the students to tell me about themselves, and what career they might thinking about.  As part of Building my Skills they will have already done some research into possible sectors of interest to them, so they all have something to say.  There’s always an wide range of detail in their answers; with some young people knowing very clearly what they want to do and why, and others who have only a vague idea.

Regardless of their answer, my follow-on question is:

‘What is your plan B?’

This often throws the students as I suspect they’re not often asked what happens if they’re not successful.

What is most interesting to me is that, in their answers, students will often change the whole direction of what they would like to do for their plan B.  For example, I’ve had students who had been interested in midwifery suggest that their plan B would be ‘something to do with drama’, or who wanted to be a tennis player, but their plan B would be ‘I dunno, maybe history?’.  Very few give suggestions that are in a similar sector to the one they are planning for.

At this point in the interview, I’ll talk about other possibilities that the students could do that is not their first choice, but that is linked to it.  Often I’ll suggest websites or resources that they might like to investigate.  For example, if a student wants to study medicine, but their predicted grades make that look unlikely we’ll talk about what is it about medicine that interests them.  They could study radiography, occupational therapy, Information management and so on.  (Although I do have to admit that if it’s the salary that they find attractive, then the other options aren’t so well paid!)

I would encourage all students (and teachers and parents/carers) to think about their Plan B.  Just in case.

Some useful websites:

Health careers from the NHS – an invaluable website for students that want to work in healthcare, and for their teachers and families to find out the huge range of careers.

This is Engineering from Engineering UK – looking at the opportunities in engineering from a range of different viewpoints e.g. design, space, fashion, sport

National Careers Service website – a government backed website which includes an A-Z description of over 800 different careers.

Why not Physics?

Last month, the Institute of Physics released a report called ‘Why not Physics?

The report looked at how many students studied A-level science subjects in different schools in 2016. The good news is that the picture is a little bit better than when the IOP did a similar analysis 4 years ago.

The bad news is that there are still 44% of schools that don’t send any girls to study A-level Physics*.

As well as looking at the number of students who study physics in different types of schools, the report looks at how well students do in their GCSEs in different subjects, and how that affects their choice of A-levels.

“More girls achieve high grades in GCSE physics than boys, and girls generally outperform boys across the board at GCSE.  However, a smaller proportion of girls have physics in their top four subjects at GCSE (65% for girls compared to 81% for boys). When a student does have physics in their top four results, boys are three times more likely to progress to A-level physics than girls.” pg.18

So, on average, girls tend to be doing well in all of their GCSEs, which means that even though they get a good grade in Physics, they also get good grades in their other subjects, which makes physics less likely to be in their top four subjects.

How do GCSE grades influence what subjects a student chooses at A-level? You might think that students will be more likely choose to study A-levels in subjects that they did well in at GCSE.

You can see in Figure 12 from the report that students are much more likely to study a science A-level if the respective GCSE was in their top 4 results at GCSE.

But what happened if a science was not in a student’s top four subjects.

There is no reason why students have to choose A-levels in subjects that were in their top GCSEs. In fact, there are good reasons relating to progression to university or employment, or simply enjoyment, that mean a student might choose to study an A-level that isn’t in their top 4 GCSEs.

Looking at the graph, boys tend to progress to a science subject that was not in their top 4 at about the same rate regardless of whether it was biology, chemistry or physics.

But wait … Girls are more than twice as likely to choose biology when it wasn’t in their top 4 grades, as they were to choose Physics when it was in their top 4 grades.

Read that again.

Girls are more than twice as likely to choose biology when it wasn’t in their top 4 grades, as they were to choose Physics when it was in their top 4 grades.

Why should this be? Why biology? Why not physics? 

One of the recomendations of the IOP report is that:

Schools should provide effective careers guidance that starts at an early stage, focuses on the next educational phase, emphasises the benefit of choosing certain subject combinations to allow progression to a wide variety of opportunities, and actively challenges gender stereotypes and unconscious biases. pg.8

Here at NUSTEM we are working with North East schools to tackle unconscious bias, and minimise its effects on students.  We offer CPD on unconscious bias for teachers, as well as for those who are involved in advising students about A-level and career choice.

If you would be interested in having NUSTEM work with your school on unconscious bias, then get in touch.

 

*This slightly weird definition means that we can also look at schools which don’t have a sixth form, and track where their pupils go.

Leaky pipeline or drip irrigation system

The leaky pipeline is a recurring metaphor in discussions about the gender balance in Science (especially physical sciences), Technology, Engineering and Maths (collectively, ‘STEM’).  Whether the field under discussion is academic or industrial, there is widespread concern about the fact that many of those who start in the field do not stay in the field in the longer term.

Images of a pipeline, with leaks, are regularly produced which show the percentage of women at different stages, and in different disciplines.  Alongside the images are headlines about ‘Plugging the leaks’, ‘Why women leave…’ and ‘Where have all the women gone?’

This is a very negative narrative.  Somehow, the lack of diversity in a range of fields is the fault of the people leaving, and not the fields themselves. If only the women (or people of colour, or low socioeconomic status) realised that they were part of a leaking pipeline, maybe they’d stay and everything would be alright.

The leaky pipeline metaphor implies that leaving the pipeline is wasteful, and a poor choice (on the part of the people in question).  However, is that really the case?

Is the problem with the people or the subject?

In 2006 the Institute of Physics published ‘Girls in the Physics Classroom: a review of the research on girls’ participation in physics‘ and ‘Girls in the Physics Classroom: a teachers guide for action.’  In many ways, this work was focussed on how to make the physics classroom more appealing to girls, and to identify how to teach girls so that they liked physics.

Over time IOP has used analysis of the National Pupil Database to show that there are whole school effects around the take-up of physics by girls and boys.  The report ‘It’s different for girls‘ looked at the differences in Physics uptake as a function of type of school, and ‘Closing doors‘ looked at the gender balance for a range of subjects.

It would seem that uptake of A-level physics (and by extension other STEM subjects) is not a problem for 13-16 year old girls to solve, but rather is mediated by whole school, and even societal, issues.

On a wider scale, I would argue that rather than trying to change girls and make them choose STEM subjects, the onus is on the different STEM industries to change so that girls (and others) want to work there.

Are the people leaving ‘going to waste’?

The implication from many of the articles around the leaky STEM pipeline is that those people that leave the pipeline are wasting their training and their talents. Perhaps, from the point of view of an engineering company, an engineering graduate who becomes a physics or maths teacher is a waste. They have dripped out of the pipeline, and represent a net loss. Maybe, from the point of view of a university, the chemistry graduate who becomes a science communicator, or an MP, is a waste. Every A-level physics student who goes on to study law or music is another physicist lost from the pipeline.

But are they wasted?  Or do they take the ways of thinking and understanding of the world gained from studying STEM (to whatever level), and use them in other fields of knowledge?

Changing the metaphor

What if, instead of thinking in terms of leaking pipelines, we thought about drip irrigation systems?

A drip irrigation system is a series of pipes which direct water and nutrients to plants where they are needed, and then release the water.  In ‘leaking,’ the irrigation system makes its environment better.

Society needs people at all levels and in a range of different disciplines who are comfortable with STEM and see its value, not necessarily working in STEM.  Maybe we should think of the drip irrigation STEM system – improving society as those with STEM training permeate throughout it.

At a recent STEM in Schools conference, Yvonne Baker (STEM Learning) talked about the need to consider a longer game.  Maybe students don’t go into STEM, or maybe they leave STEM to follow another career path.  But, perhaps when their children, or friends’ children talk about wanting to become engineers, physicists or computer programmers, they would encourage those career choices.

Rather than making people feel like they’ve failed if they don’t make it to the bucket at the end of the pipeline, let’s encourage them to irrigate and improve wherever they go to.

Let’s change the metaphor.

@NUSTEMxmas: our festive, robotic, IoT glockenspiel

Every now and then, we (Jonathan and Joe) get an idea stuck in our heads. It’s usually a ridiculous idea, an idea that should never see the light of day. But then, one of us says it out loud…

We’d like to introduce you to the NUSTEM IoT Festive Glockenspiel™.

Whilst you pick your jaw up off the floor, we’ll explain what’s going on and offer a little background as to how we ended up with this creation in our office.

The Glockenspiel has the brains of a Raspberry Pi, and those brains are listening to Twitter. When anyone tweets to @NUSTEMxmas and requests a festive tune, our Pi picks up the message and quickly searches through our vast bank of early 00s mobile phone ringtones for a match. A command is then sent to another Pi elsewhere in the office, which decodes the ringtone and instructs yet another Pi to rev eight servos into action. Those servos move hammers which strike our home-made, only-slightly-out-of-tune, no-sharps-or-flats, plays-with-enough-enthusiasm-to-occasionally-break-itself glockenspiel. We also added flashing lights – synced to the music, obviously –  to enhance the festive mood, and a readout so we know who’s requested the song. One of the Pis (we forget which, but probably the first) also tweets a reply to the original requester.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how it works, we’ve documented our code on GitHub. You can download it and (in theory…) build one of these things yourself. Or poke around in our code for festive giggles: we cobbled this whole project together using bits of previous projects or longer-term incomplete ideas, so the system architecture is at the hilarious end of software engineering.

How we got here

The Glockenspiel is a spin-off from our Robot Orchestra workshop. We’ve been running this digital making activity with our schools and as a public drop-in for several years. The workshop (and the robots) have gradually developed, becoming a little cleverer each time:

  • First version: Arduino controllers move servos on a fixed beat pattern.
  • Second version: Arduinos ‘easily’ reprogrammable, and operating two servos.
  • Third version: Wemos D1 controllers commanded over wifi from a Raspberry Pi, hence all playing in sync.
  • Fourth version: Command system can parse saved patterns and so ‘play tunes’; controllers can respond to one of eight ‘channels’.
  • Fifth version: You know, things get a little hazy somewhere in here…
  • nth version: System controlled by a lovely light-up button board, or a less glamorous but more practical on-screen interface. This is both a super-modern visual programming environment, and something that looks uncannily similar to the sort of punched cards that were used to drive weaving looms and started all this stuff off in the first place.

We’ve built the various parts of our system in a modular sort of way, so it’s relatively easy to switch bits in, remove parts, or graft in new ideas. We use this approach in lots of our digital making projects, with the result that ideas and bits of code are easily shared across projects. We also have a habit of attempting projects which are right on the edge of what we think we can do, but which feel achievable because we’ve already solved half the problems in other projects.

(an early version of the robotic glockenspiel – from, like, Tuesday or thereabouts – showing the on-screen direct programming interface. This was before we built the parser for mobile phone ringtones.)

The new parts we’ve built for this version of the project include:

  • Using a Raspberry Pi as our servo controller, and driving eight (count ’em, eight!) servos from it. Thanks to Ben Nuttall for pointing us in the right direction for that.
  • Handling requests from Twitter. We’ve done this before, but we’ve done a better job of it this time.
  • We found a library of suitably festive songs … in RTTTL mobile phone ringtone format, which is one of those things that rather died out in 2004. So we dredged up music theory half-remembered from our pre-GCSE days and leaned on bits of code from others (RTTTL parser; frequency-to-note convertor), and ended up with code which plays ringtones on our…
  • …home-made copper pipe glockenspiel. Which was itself inspired by this Instructable. Big thanks to everyone who came to our Raspberry Jam last weekend and mucked in to help build this!
  • We added a Pimoroni Displayotron HAT screen, which was intended for a completely different project but was just too bling not to use. Only later did we realise there’s a whole monitor literally right next to it. Oh, well.
  • Finally, we hacked some of the older Wemos-based players so they drove twinkly lights rather than servos, and used them to increase the total amount of festive.

We’ll use bits of this system in a variety of ways throughout 2018, so it’s not even the case that we’ve been massively goofing off in work hours. Mostly. Sadly, we didn’t manage to get to ‘posting video clips back to Twitter’ – most of the recipes we’ve seen for that sort of thing are video-only, which wouldn’t work so well for a musical project. So if you tweet us, you’ll just have to trust that the system has indeed played a little tune for us in the NUSTEM office.

Hmm… a little belief? At Christmas? It’ll never catch on.