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The art of inspiration

From sand sculptures to storytelling, the Met Office's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) outreach programme is always looking for new ways to inspire young minds.

To maintain its reputation as a world-leading meteorological organisation, the Met Office must attract the brightest minds from across STEM subjects.

As STEM outreach coordinator Felicity Liggins says, "A vital part of this is to engage children and young people in the work the Met Office does - and hopefully spark their interest in pursuing STEM careers. We need the best people to work here, so it's really valuable to go out into communities and show young people how interesting and exciting STEM subjects are. Outreach is also a great way for our staff to develop their skills."

So, as well as the sorts of programmes you might expect from a science institution - including the annual, award-winning Met Office Science Camps - STEM outreach has looked to the arts to find innovative ways of getting children and young people interested in meteorology.

Sandscape at Green Man

For the past three years, Met Office scientists have braved the changeable Welsh weather to hold a stall at Green Man, an independent art and music festival in the Brecon Beacons. They're usually found in Einstein's Garden - an area of the festival devoted to creative takes on science.

This year, as well as providing weather forecasts to festival-goers, the Met Office partnered with the University of Exeter in an Einstein's Garden project funded by the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity. Felicity and the STEM outreach volunteers thought long and hard about how to talk about weather-related health issues, from pollen forecasts to urban heat islands - and landed on sand sculpture.

Working with professional sculptors Sand in Your Eye, they held four, hour-long workshops each day, inviting people to create a sandscape featuring a city, river, farmland and mountains. At the end of each session, Met Office scientists explained how weather and climate change interact with the landscape - such as how traffic and factory emissions affect air quality in urban areas, and how skyscrapers trap and radiate heat.

To finish, they poured dry ice over the sculpture, simulating how fresh, healthy air flows over the landscape, and how it can be blocked and redirected by features such as buildings.

The benefit of holding projects like Sandscape at festivals, Felicity says, is that they attract a wide audience of people. "Green Man attracts a lot of families who are interested in new ideas, and doing something different. Everyone really enjoyed creating the sculpture, and we also had plenty of people interested in hearing about the research we do at the Met Office."

Breaking boundaries

Whether working with visual artists or taking tips from the theatre, a multi-disciplinary approach can help STEM outreach programmes reach a varied audience. Not only that, but as Felicity points out, collaborating with artists can help Met Office scientists see their work in a fresh way:

"The artists will often ask different questions, which we haven't thought of or are perhaps afraid to ask. This helps us look at our research from a different angle, and explore how we can better communicate that to others."

WOW factor

The Weather Observation Website (WOW) enables people to submit weather data to the Met Office. Over the next few months, a pilot project will encourage UK schools to use WOW to set up their own weather stations and get hands-on with the data.

WOW Schools will be piloted in 10 primary schools selected through an open draw. Keep an eye on our website to find out more about the project.


Astro Science Challenge

The Met Office is also working with primary school classes as part of the Astro Science Challenge, a project running throughout October - December 2015. The Astro Science Challenge was set up by the Unlimited Space Agency (UNSA) which produces arts projects designed to inspire and engage young people in STEM subjects. The project coincides with British European Space Agency astronaut and patron of UNSA, Tim Peake's mission to the International Space Station in December.

The Astro Science Challenge is made up of six 'missions', each led by different institutions, including the UK Space Agency and the Royal Observatory. The Met Office's mission is based around forecasting space weather events, such as solar flares.

Jon Spooner, Director of Human Spaceflight Operations at UNSA said, "Space travel is exciting, no matter what age you are, and there are so many educational angles to Tim's mission that this project seemed a natural next step for us and the partners."

By working with the UNSA we can put scientific information across to children in a different, creative way that really grabs their imaginations. This could include storytelling, featuring characters that the children can follow throughout the space mission, and interactive challenges they have to solve.