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.  or

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.

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.

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.

Astronauts, sports scholarships, the web, deforestation, and the power of unexpected connections

Here’s a delightful little story from web developer Sarah Mei, posted on Twitter. It starts out being about American university sports scholarships, but heads off in directions you’re really not going to expect.

We all assume, when we’re in school, that we’re going to have ‘a career’, that it’s going to make sense, and that we can map out roughly how it’s going to go. For some people that’s absolutely true, but for many (most?) of us, our lives take twists and turns we’d never have predicted. Some of us rather like it that way, even if we don’t have stories quite as good as this.

Tip of the hat to Elin Roberts for the link.

Connecting with Physics

When I did my A-levels a couple of decades ago, there were only two or three girls in my physics class. The situation has got a little better since then, but many girls still find they are in a minority in their physics class. Whilst this doesn’t stop the students enjoying physics and doing well, it can sometimes feel a bit isolating.

To help the situation here in the North East, Think Physics is running a second year of our Physics Connect Network. This aims to allow girls from different schools to connect with each other through on-campus meetings and an online support group.

The network kicks off on January 28th with a Saturday morning session. Award-winning physics communicator Dr Jess Wade will be talking about her research at University College, London, on flexible solar cells. We’ll also look at where physics can lead to in terms of careers.

Later in the term there will be sessions on practical work using K’Nex, an Easter revision morning, and a visit to a local physics-related industry (watch this space for details!).

You can find more about the network sessions here, and the timetable for January 28th, including a booking link, here.

Reece Engineering Summer School

As well as Physics Connect, Think Physics organises a three-week summer school for Year 12 female Physics and Engineering students. Funded by the Reece Foundation, the course provides an introduction to engineering in its many forms. It’s an intense and hectic few weeks, with industry visits, challenges, individual and group research, presentations… everything we can cram into the time.

Applications are now open for the 2017 school: for more information and the application form, click here.

Work with us! Ogden Science Officer vacancy with the Think Physics team

We’re recruiting!

If you’re of a physics sort of persuasion (other physical sciences count!), can hold your own in a careers discussion, and look at the prospect of writing and delivering workshops for secondary students and think “Bring it on!” – take a look at our job advert.

Full job description, person specification, application forms, and contact details for further information are at that link.

The Amazingly Enormous STEM Careers Poster

Here’s a neat resource from the terrific folks behind the globe-spanning celebration of the achievements of women in STEM which is Ada Lovelace Day: the aptly-named “Amazingly Enormous STEM Careers Poster”.

We’ve used it a couple of times and can recommend it. The only thing we’d say is that – as with all these sorts of resources – it can be slightly tricky to convey the idea that the list of jobs isn’t exhaustive. That’s particularly challenging when there’s little apparent connection between the job and the degree course… which is rather the point of this particular poster.

So: this is a really nicely-prepared resource, which benefits from a little thought and care about how you introduce or use it.

It’s available for download and self-printing, or you can buy physical posters, both via the links.

Careers in the (primary) classroom?

There have been some news articles recently about universities, primary schools and careers.

In the first article, Teach First recently called for universities to work with primary schools as part of University ‘widening participation’ work.  These are activities that are focused on ensuring that progression to university is open to students whatever their background.  At the moment, many universities focus mostly on children in year 9 and above. According to Teach First, currently only around 1200 pupils on Free school meals go to Russell Group Universities each year, out of 800,000 young people in receipt of free school meals.  As a result, they think that children should taught about university much earlier, from primary school.

A second report was published by UCAS.  They surveyed students who had applied to go to university in 2015 about what encouraged or put them off.  The survey found that around 35% of the students had decided that they wanted to go to university before the age of 10, and that they were more likely to get into ‘competitive universities’.

Finally, in a riposte to the Teach First suggestion, the Times Educational Supplement posted an article written by Joe Tyler who works for the Philosophy Foundation.  Tyler believes that rather than pushing information about university on ever younger children, we should focus on enhancing their happiness.

He says:

Some children want things and wish for things that they might never have: becoming a world class footballer, rapper, pop star. In a world of uncertainty, we never know for sure what is going to happen, and some children will get their wish.

Yet as carers for these children we might think it better to make sure they focus on getting their good education first, by chipping away at their dreams and putting them on to the ‘safer’ route by telling them to think more about getting on with their studies and extra-curricular activities which will get them in to the best university.

The combination of these three articles got me thinking.

I’m a bit frustrated by the focus of Teach First and UCAS on Russell group and similar universities.  The Russell group of universities consist of 24 universities.  In 2014/15 there were 163 universities.  At a rough calculation, the Russell group can accommodate just over 6% of the UK’s undergraduates.  Focusing on attendance at only those universities is, to my mind, quite narrow-minded.*

That aside, I do think that Teach First and UCAS have a point.  Whilst telling young children very specific details about particular universities probably isn’t appropriate, I do think that we need to let them know about the wide range of future careers available to them.  It’s all very well for the Philosophy Foundation to suggest that we encourage young children to follow their dream and become a footballer or a pop star, but for the vast majority of children, that will not happen.  Telling them about other jobs, isn’t expecting them to take the safe route, and might show them something else that they could dream about becoming.

That’s what we aim to do here at Think Physics.  Our primary workshops are focused on different STEM fields or careers, linked to the primary curriculum.  We have workshops about botanists, volcanologist, and naval architects amongst others.  The pupils we work with know that the science they study can lead into a whole range of different jobs.

Let’s encourage our children to have a good education by showing them that their dreams can be much bigger than they imagined.

Testing bridges-1650thin

Structural engineering workshop

*Declaration of interest: Think Physics is not based at a Russell Group university.

British Science Week. That’s all for now, folks!

Each March, British Science Week celebrates the awesomeness of science, technology, engineering and maths. Over this year’s week, from 11th – 18th March, Think Physics joined in the fun by opening up specially-designed workshops and lectures to schools from across the North East. The result was a fantastically action-packed and rewarding week of workshops. We had Key Stage 2 students making Incredible Machines and Key Stages 3 and 4 investigating Rollercoaster Physics.

In Incredible Machines, pupils explored the simple mechanisms of gears and linkages and made their own machines from cardboard and paper fastners. The workshop invited children to look at the role of engineers in designing and creating machines which help shape the world around us.

In Rollercoaster Physics, pupils got hands-on with rollercoasters, building their own K’nex test track and using data loggers to measure the speed of a golf ball as it looped-the-loop. Would its speed match the predictions of the physics?

It was a pleasure to deliver workshops to schools including:
Corpus Christi Primary, Wellfield Middle, Stephenson Memorial Primary, Monkseaton Middle, Marden High, Burradon Community Primary, Southridge First, West Jesmond Primary, The Drive Community Primary and Usworth Colliery Primary.

We did not stop there, though. Oh, no. We ended the week with Physics in Perspective, a half-day of talks and discussions combining physics lectures and STEM careers information. We were delighted to welcome Professor Danielle George, a former pupil of Kenton School, who is now Professor in Microwave Communication Engineering at the University of Manchester and was the brilliant host of the 2014 Ri Christmas Lectures Sparks will Fly: How to Hack your Home. Danielle talked about the new rules of invention and showed participants how to use modern tools and technologies to have fun, transform everyday items and make a difference in the world. We were also joined by Northumbria University’s very own Dr. Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar who illustrated how nature has evolved some of the cleverest solutions to everyday problems by building “soft matter” structures. Exploration of these natural solutions is inspiring cutting-edge technological developments: bio-inspired smart materials.

We rounded off the day with a careers panel, where pupils had the opportunity to learn about the variety of pathways open those who study physics at A-Level, and to ask questions of the panel (Candace Adams from QuantuMDx, Paul Casson from Macaw Engineering and Danielle George).


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Who Are They?

What do Aquafresh toothpaste, Horlicks and Amoxil antibiotic all have in common?

They’re all products created and manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

GSK is a global pharmaceutical company which has been formed through the merger of lots of different companies.

There are three main areas of healthcare that GSK are involved in:

  • Researching and developing prescription medicines
  • Developing, producing and distributing vaccines in over 170 countries around the world
  • Manufacturing consumer health products
    • Over the counter medicines such as Night Nurse
    • Toothpaste and other oral health products
    • Skin health products
    • nutrition products such as Horlicks.

GSK have offices in more than 150 countries, a network of 86 manufacturing sites in 36 countries and large R&D centres in the UK, USA, Spain, Belgium and China. In the UK GSK employ around 16,000 people across 18 sites. One of their Research and Development sites is based in Barnard Castle in the north east of England.


With such a wide range of different products and brands, GSK have a wide range of careers available.  Some examples of possible roles:

  • Chemical engineers
  • Immunologists
  • Material scientists
  • Medicinal chemists
  • Doctors
  • Biochemists
  • Microbiologists
  • Cancer research specialists
  • Biologists
  • Lawyers
  • Statisticians
  • Automation engineer
  • Pharmacologists
  • Technicians – biology and chemistry
  • Accountants
  • Sales people
  • Brand developers and designers
  • IT specialists

Science and Maths links

Topics in science and maths that link to GSK and what the company does:

  • Particle model of matter
  • Acids and alkalise
  • Types of reactions
  • Cells
  • Organisms
  • Health, disease and dvelopment of medicines
  • Nutrition and digestion
  • Number
  • Probability
  • Statistics



Who Are They?

Knowing whether water is safe to drink or to use is very important. We can see when water contains large impurities like dirt and leaves, we can’t see microbes or chemicals that are lurking in there.

Palintest develop and sell products that can be used to test and analyse water quality. That could be water that has been processed in a water-treatment works (sewage works) and that will be returned to the environment, or it could be water in swimming pools, hydrotherapy pools or spas.

They also sell products to test soil quality through analysing the water in the soil.


Palintest have a wide range of different jobs to allow them to manufacture and sell their products, and to support the customers who buy them.

  • Research chemist
  • Process chemist
  • Technical Sales manager
  • Electronic Design Engineer
  • Quality improvement manager
  • Electronics engineer
  • Innovation officer
  • Financial controller
  • Software developer
  • Callibration operator

Science and Maths links

Topics in science and maths that link to Palintest and its products:

  • Communicable diseases
  • Acids and Alkalis
  • Assessing purity
  • Identification of ions by chemical and spectroscopic means
  • Obtaining potable water
  • Statistics – sampling populations and distributions
  • Accuracy


Employer: EDF

Who Are They?

Electricity is a vital part of our everyday lives.  The electricity is generated across the UK (and beyond) and then delivered to UK homes and businesses through the national grid network.

EDF Energy is one of the largest electricity generators in the UK.  They generate electricity from nuclear, gas and coal power stations across the UK, including a nuclear powerstation in Hartlepool.

As well as electricity generation, EDF is researching ways to improve energy storage and efficiency,  low-carbon technologies, and energy system design.  They’re also looking at how to develop ideas to make smart homes and cities which will use less energy.

EDF Energy is part of the EDF group which has sites worldwide.


Among the jobs that people who work at EDF Energy have are:

  • Engineering maintenance technician
  • Fuel Engineer
  • Electrical Engineer
  • Thermal Hydraulics Engineer
  • Health and Safety
  • Grid engineer
  • Investment analysist
  • Wind turbine technician
  • Accountant
  • Business and finance analyst
  • mechanical fitter
  • electrician

Science and Maths links

Topics that link to EDF and what the company does:

  • Atomic structure
  • Radioactivity
  • Nuclear fission
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Carbon Dioxide as a greenhouse gas
  • Current electricity
  • Energy and energy transfers
  • Global energy sources
  • Transformers and the national grid
  • Probability
  • Ratio and proportion

Procter and Gamble

Procter and Gamble

Who Are They?

What do having a shower, washing the pots after dinner and changing a baby’s nappy have in common?

They all involve making things cleaner.  And Procter and Gamble have products which are used for all three.

Procter and Gamble is a company which develops and manufactures lots of different products which help people to make their world a little bit more pleasant.

The company started out making soap and candles, but now produces a wide range of home and personal care products from Fairy liquid, Pampers, Gillette, Tampax and Ariel.  But not candles nowadays!

The company has offices across the world.  The Innovation Centre in Longbenton, Newcastle is one of the sites where new products are developed.


Jobs that people working at Procter and Gamble have include:

  • Financial analyst
  • Measurement scientist
  • Chemical engineer
  • Manufacturing engineer
  • Model maker
  • Electrical Engineer
  • Physical chemist
  • Brand marketing
  • Information technology
  • Network engineer
  • Microbiologist

You can read about some of the people who work at P&G, and watch some short films on the company’s careers website.

Science and Maths links

Topics in science and maths that link to Procter and Gamble:

  • Particle model of matter
  • separating mixtures
  • acids and alkalis
  • earth resources

Newcastle International Airport

Employer: Newcastle International airport

From newcastle to the world

Air transport is essential for economic growth and development of regions, as it connects people and goods on a local, national and international scale. Newcastle International Airport is no different. In 2017, 5.4 million passengers traveled to and from Newcastle, and the airport itself helped regional businesses to generate £350 million pounds in exports.

From Newcastle Airport you can travel the world with 80 direct flight destinations including a few transatlantic destinations in America.

In this short film you can find more about the airport vision for 2035, when it celebrates it’s 100th birthday.

Complex operation

Running an airport 24/7 and 365 days a year is quite very complex task because it is not just about flying! There are many teams working together to ensure a smooth day-to-day operation of the airport: security services (screening passengers and patrolling premises); passenger services (helping people with reduced mobility to or from aircrafts); fire brigade (ensure a fast response in case of emergency); air traffic control (helping aircraft land and depart safely and on time) to name just a few.


There are  a wide range of different jobs available within the airport that use STEM:

  • Air Traffic Controller
  • Airport Operations Officer
  • Airside Agent
  • Aeronautical Engineer
  • Aviation Meteorologist
  • Data analyst
  • Fire Fighter
  • Pilot
  • Maintenance Engineers
  • Marketing
  • Financial planner

Science and Maths links

Topics in Science and Mathematics that link to Newcastle International Airport.

  • Trigonometry
  • Bearings
  • Statistics
  • Forces
  • Energy
  • Electromagnetic Spectrum (especially X-rays and microwaves)
  • Chemical Analysis (in security)
  • Communicable diseases
  • Biodiversity and the effect of humans on different ecosystems

This resource was produced as part of the FutureMe project.