Inspiring young hearts and minds
4 November 2013
How do you inspire the next generation to pursue a science or maths-based career?
Felicity Liggins is a Met Office Climate Consultant, but she's also one of a growing body of Met Office staff who volunteer as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) ambassadors - inspiring young people to study STEM subjects.
When Felicity first joined the Met Office five and a half years ago, there were just ten Met Office STEM ambassadors. Today, there are over 120. For the last two years, Felicity has been coordinating this volunteer army, and working with colleagues to ensure that STEM volunteering becomes ever more embedded and part of the culture of the Met Office.
The work of the Met Office STEM ambassadors varies hugely: from outreach visits in local schools, to taking part in national events such as The Big Bang - an annual science event that hosts over 65,000 young people. While there's an emphasis on events in the local region, the Met Office has STEM ambassadors across the UK and is looking to participate in more nationwide events. Every event is an opportunity to interact with young people and encourage them to study STEM subjects.
Making STEM accessible
Gone are the days of simply giving a talk. Today's STEM ambassadors are armed with experiments and hands-on activities that capture the attention and imagination of their audience.
"Kids love it when you take experiments in - like making clouds or tornados in bottles," explains Felicity. At events such as the Cheltenham Science Festival, the STEM Ambassadors also bring green screen technology so that young people can try their hand at presenting the weather.
"It's all about making the science and maths relevant," explains Felicity. "I would have loved, when I was about to choose my A-levels, if someone had actually shown me how statistics were relevant. Now I have to learn statistics on the job and that's much more difficult."
"Kids love it when you take experiments in - like making clouds or tornados in bottles."
As well as engaging young people with the science, it showcases the breadth and depth of what the Met Office does - and the sheer diversity of people who work there. The Met Office also holds STEM events for school teachers, including Continued Professional Development courses to help teachers keep up to date with the science. "If we can help teachers understand the basics of weather or climate, and where the exciting science is going, they're able to go out and inspire their students."
Reaping the rewards
For Felicity, the benefits of being a STEM ambassador are clear: "I love interacting with young people when they're as excited about what we do as we are. I don't mind if they don't remember the details of the science - if they're just excited about it, that's wonderful."
The benefits are two-way: every STEM event is an opportunity for the ambassadors to work with fellow Met Office staff they wouldn't otherwise meet - and to learn from each other, too. As Felicity explains, "Suddenly you're meeting new people from across the organisation and finding out what they do. And because our work is so dynamic and the science is always progressing, it's amazing what you learn at STEM events."
Being a STEM ambassador is also an affirmation of what it means to be part of the Met Office - and nowhere has this been more evident than in the recent pilot series of Science Camps.
Science Camp 2013
Launched in April this year, the Science Camps offered 11 and 12 year olds the opportunity to camp out at the Met Office overnight. When they arrived on the Friday evening, they were set a challenge, to provide a weather forecast for a fictional celebrity who wanted to know whether he'd get his perfectly-styled hair wet at an upcoming gig. They learnt directly from Met Office staff about temperature, wind, how clouds form and so on. They then applied what they had learnt and presented their forecast in front of a green screen the following morning.
Science Camps will be held again in 2014. Besides the overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants, the events drew tremendous support from Met Office staff. Over 100 staff members volunteered and many later commented on how the event made them proud to be part of the Met Office. This is one of the great benefits of being a STEM ambassador: "It's really rewarding and a big part of inspiring you to do a good job at work," says Felicity.
Now, the Met Office is looking to develop partnerships with other STEM organisations, such as Bloodhound SSC, the makers of the supersonic car. This has a very popular STEM programme and the Met Office has just installed a weather station on the flats where they're going to try to break the land speed record.
It's just the kind of project that will capture the interest of young people. And as Felicity says, "If you've inspired even one kid then that makes it all worthwhile."