Delivering meaningful widening participation initiatives virtually
My A-level chemistry modules involved hands-on, close contact laboratory classes, with around 30 students on wooden benches, typically doing experiments in pairs or small groups. The network of scientists that I have acquired from working alongside others in universities has also been hugely beneficial. The connections I have formed have opened up job opportunities, and allowed me to enjoy doctoral training programme meetings – and research chatter in the pub.
Lately, as Covid-19 restrictions have prevented much in-person teaching in schools and universities, I have reflected on my fortune to have been part of this era. Thankfully, over the course of lockdown, I discovered that there are initiatives in place to give budding scientists some of the opportunities for experiment and discussion I had.
Widening participation schemes are crucial in ensuring everyone can get access to hands-on experiences. Projects like Pathways, which is one of 29 partnerships across England funded by the Office for Students as part of their Uni Connect Programme, aim to support more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach their full potential through higher education. Normally, students are invited to universities to get a taste of lectures and laboratory sessions and complete a project over a six-week period. Importantly, the courses do not just allow students to see what university is like – for their hard work and commitment they receive a Bronze Crest award to support their university applications.
This year widening participation went fully virtual for the first time. I was fortunate to be invited to teach a 10-hour virtual course on Fizz Chemistry, in place of the university lecturers who would normally deliver the course but instead were preparing online undergraduate content for the new academic year. As an early career researcher, this was the first time I had developed and delivered teaching material without the guidance of a senior academic. I was excited about the prospect, but a little nervous that I was not able to physically oversee the students’ activities.
I felt that I bonded with the group despite never seeing their faces, just their name on a Zoom screen
Instead of bringing the students to the university, I had to think about intuitive ways to bring the university to them. We went on video tours, taking a journey through universities, hospitals and high-throughput diagnostics laboratories. We held practicals that they could perform in their own homes. Students formulated their own risk assessments, 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 very successful. I felt that I bonded with the group despite never seeing their faces, just their name on a Zoom screen. They responded to my personality, my smile (which, if we’d met in person, would have been hidden by a mask) and we communicated effectively over our Facebook threads. Students enjoyed being able to watch the content over again and the ability to work at their own pace from the comfort of their home.
The real advantages of teaching health and safety elements at home was helping students to recognise the hazards present in their own households, including washing-up powder and bleach, and helping them to understand the chemistry behind these compounds. But home chemistry also presents challenges, such as the lack of scientific equipment – like thermometers – in a typical household. Ahead of the programme, students were posted the essential ingredients and apparatus to create their fizzers but students did feed back that if they had more equipment, results would have been more precise and accurate. I think this constructive criticism demonstrates that the students were engaged and shows their desire for scientific advancement.
It is difficult to comprehend outreach when it may not be possible to connect with everyone
The other main challenge the students highlighted was internet-related technical difficulties, which is hard to overcome. This got me questioning whether there were more students who would have liked to take part, but who could not get access to the internet to tune in. It is difficult to comprehend outreach when it may not be possible to connect with everyone. Particularly, when the people hardest to reach are likely to be those who are most disadvantaged. Equally, this programme may have been more accessible to those who might not have attended an in-person course because of the cost of travel or anxiety about how they compare to other students.
We had an array of fizzers in the course, some seemingly perfect and some that fizzed too soon and overflowed their moulds, but each provided a lesson. With or without equipment, with or without in-person contact, we can still experiment, learn and inspire.
I would like to thank the Pathways team and De Montfort University outreach for this opportunity, and Geraldine Williams and Tom Studd for their contributions 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/