Monday, 3 December 2012

Please ask questions

I realise that Christmas is still a month off, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it – perhaps because Christmas party season has already started at my work – or maybe because I know exams are around the corner thanks to the constant knawing anxiety in the corner of my stomach. Whatever it is, this will be my last entry until January and Uni (and school) resume as normal. I’ve got revision to worry about, and so do my new class.

It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around the Scottish education system – I’m still getting used to meeting 1st year Uni students that are not (as is standard in England) 18 or 19, but that are actually barely 17. In England we take our major exams in 5th, 6th and 7th year – up in the north though it turns out to be 4th, 5th and (optionally) 6th years that have them to worry about. Which is how I came to be transferred to a 4th year group, reasoning being they might need a bit of extra support in the build up to their Standard Grades.

I’m really excited for next year now – this first couple of months has been mostly training and trying to find a place when I can actually be useful. From my brief sessions with the students so far I’ve learnt two main things: firstly, that it is absolutely terrifying the first time someone actually asks you a question; secondly, that students are not going to automatically want to ask for your help. Realising that someone actually expects you to have some authority in your subject area is incredibly disconcerting. There was a horrible moment when I really thought I wouldn’t be able to explain a 4th year level problem – I seem to have a knack for mind-blanking everything I know at the worst possible moments. That said, the main thing that I’ve realised is that it’s much, much harder when they don’t ask questions. It’s very hard to know what to do when you know that someone needs a bit of help, but they won’t ask. That’s what I’m looking forward to most next year – knowing the class well enough that they feel that they can ask me stuff.

In fairness to them, if I’d had a stranger barely 5 years older than myself dropped in front of me and told to ask them for help during my GCSEs, I’d probably have been a bit disconcerted too. This is something I’ve definitely adjusted to at Uni though – a major feature of Edinburgh is that almost all of our tutors are postgraduates. I’ve long since adjusted to the fact that people literally less than 5 years older than myself are more than capable of dealing with pretty much any of my problems on my course.  I probably would not have thought that way whilst I was at school though – there teachers are teachers, and students are students, and there’s a pretty vast chasm between the two.

I suppose that the entire ethos of Pro Science is about straddling that divide, but I think it’s going to take a bit more time for me to get that balance right.

Until 2013!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Outsmarted by a 12-year old

It's that magical time of year when everyone seems to be ill. Exams still loom between now and the promise of a few weeks freedom and relaxation at home - although whether a house full of your family counts as relaxation is another matter. But I'm already off topic. The point is that I managed to miss my first meeting with the school that I was set up with because I was ill and overslept.

This might be where the downside of being in my generation shows itself. Realising that is would miss the meeting, my first reaction was to email the staff member I was supposed to be talking to. Twice. I then assumed that they would see the email and walked out to the school, only to find it empty. Classes didn't run on Friday afternoons, and the teacher was already at home.

The thing is that I'm so used to constantly using text, facebook and email (I haven't quite resorted to Twitter yet but I'll probably crack soon) that the concept of making concrete plans is quite an unusual one for me. I might set a time for something with a friend, but it'd be absolutely normal for us to change our minds about 5 times in the course of the day about exactly what, if anything, was happening. So the business of making an appointment a few days or weeks in advance, and the remembering it and sticking to it, is something I find quite unusual, even though for real-person everyday life it's obviously completely standard and very important.

So yes. First lesson - don't always assume someone's glued to their social media feeds. Keep appointments.

A week later and I'd managed to actually make it into the school on time to meet the member of staff I'd be collaborating with, and we'd even set a time when I'd come into the school to watch a first year class to begin to get to know the students.

Here's another thing - sometimes people might take you at your word. I mentioned that I hadn't worked with students in a school before, but that I had done theatre work with the same age group. Inevitably the fact that I was interested in theatre cropped up. Within half an hour this had managed to morph into the idea that I might run a physics/ drama style workshop with some of the younger students. I don't think this'll happen until I know the students well enough for them to not just laugh at me, but it should make for some good anecdotes when it does. Whether they'll be at my expense remains to be seen (probably).

It was a good class to sit in on, because they were all writing up 'Space' projects that they'd researched on-line the session before. This particular group were 11 to 12. Easy! They'll all be writing about the first moon landing and what a comet is.

Ha. I reckoned without the the world of Wikipedia. Within the space of 40 minutes, I was asked what degenerated matter was (I wasn't sure), for one of the forces in the Standard Model (I mind-blanked electromagnetism so ended up trying to explain the strong force), if I knew what the Pauli-exclusion principle was (fermions when you're 12??) and whether it was true that you don't have to go to any of your classes at University (no comment).

I realised that I sometimes (in fact, normally) feel that I don't know anything about Physics. I'm at that awkward stage when I have a really really vague grasp on what some of the more complicated concepts are (I sort of get what a boson is . . . ) and seem to have largely forgotten the more basic ones (I actually couldn't remember for the life of me any details about comets). Generally my brain is just a big mush of half-learned algebra and trigonometry. To put it in other words, I don't know anything useful. Not to keep a 12-year-old engaged. Can I explain properly why a black hole sucks stuff in? Er, no. But I can orthanormalise a vector for you!

I suppose everyone goes through stages where they feel like their brain's so full of jumble they don't know anything at all. But the brilliant thing was, as soon as I got home I went and read up on all the things I'd been asked about. 2 hours too late but if they ask me again I'm prepared. Meaning the irony of the situation is that rather than my having dazzled them with my undergraduate knowledge, I was actually the one that came out of the day having learnt something.

Give me another few months with the 12-year-olds and I might be able to actually tell you some interesting stuff about physics.

The Edinburgh Award, and it transpires that self reflection really isn’t my strong point

2nd entry: 22nd October

I said that the last entry would be short, but my impressive capacity to ramble endlessly reared its ugly head. Hopefully this will be more to the point, especially as it larges focuses on my inability to self reflect.

To explain. Now, in fairness, when I started this project, I really didn’t imagine that it was going to be all about personal growth and reflection. More like trying to trying to avoid a roomful of teenagers rioting in boredom and throwing paperclips at my head (or was it just me that that happened to in high school?) But for those of us that have elected to tie the Pro Science scheme in with The Edinburgh Award, that’s exactly what it’s meant to be about.

The Edinburgh Award is a very new programme. It basically intends to create a means of recognizing officially the volunteer work that lots of students already undertake alongside their studies, and in doing so giving those students an edge on the (currently absolutely terrifying) job market. There’s a catch though. It’s not enough to just complete the volunteer work to get the Award. You’ve got to be aware, to the last degree, of exactly what personal skills you are developing, and exactly how and why you are doing so.  Apparently graduate personal awareness is like crack to prospective employers nowadays.

Bringing me to our training session. We were with Neil again, but this time only for an hour, and in the Central area. So we really had no excuse for not being on top form. Now, it might sound insanely easy to write a list of skills you want to develop, and then to order them according to what you consider to be your strongest points and those that need the most progress, and then finally to pick three that you really prioritise. But seriously, try being given a sheet of paper and told to do just that. I hadn’t even realised that I had any skills and attributes, except perhaps the rather dubious tendency to take on more than I can mange, which is hardly a virtue anyway. I had no idea. I make good brownies? I’m a reasonably competent waitress?

No, the sort of things that we were after here was more in the line of ‘communication skills’, ‘public speaking’, ‘creativity’ and ‘self awareness’. All virtues that come under the rather vague category of ‘graduate skills’ – those highly transferable and subject-independent skills that we will all have supposedly gained after squeezing ourselves through 4 years of University. This actually brings up quite an interesting discussion that cropped up before we had to write out all these lists of just how skilled we were. The gist was this: was the subject that you were studying actually directly relevant to the area that you were going on to work in? To be honest, I far as I could tell the answer was pretty obvious – it just completely depends. You don’t want an engineer who doesn’t have the first clue about fluid mechanics designing a pump system, any more than you’d want to have an anaesthetist whose idea of putting you to sleep is to have you down several shots of tequila. Then again, how many English students actually go onto become authors? Surely it’s more the fact that they’ve learnt how to piece together a coherent piece of writing, how to research and how to apply themselves that most of them will use to find work? Whatever your opinion on that debate, it did open up the question of those all important ‘graduate skills’ that the Edinburgh Award is meant to be honing for us.

This is something else that I feel quite strongly about. No offense to universities or students in general intended (that really would be a case of shooting myself in the foot)  but I feel that ‘graduate skills’ is really quite a woolly term that applies to the skill set that you (hopefully) pick up from applying yourself to any degree. I’d imagine that those include the ability to focus and to self motivate, to think laterally and creatively, and to have a really in-depth understanding of a field or subject, as well as maybe developing broader interests. Here’s my problem though – I profoundly believe that it is not necessary to go to university to achieve these things. Anyone that puts themselves through a rigorous process that does not involve being spoon fed by someone else would develop the same skill set (in my opinion). That could be anything from an apprenticeship, to a challenging internship, to thorough vocational training (try telling me professional dancers aren’t self motivated and creative) or even finding a job abroad. I really feel that this notion of ‘graduate skills’ – that you can only get these worthy skills by sitting through 3 or more years of university – is complete nonsense.

Having gotten that off my chest, I’ll now backtrack slightly by saying that of course, doing a university degree that you really care about is a brilliant way of developing these what I’d actually generalise to ‘life skills’. Now how is my rant even remotely relevant? Maybe it wasn’t, but I just wanted to establish that I’m not selling the idea that it is only undergraduates that magnanimously volunteer for a couple of hours here and there that are going to achieve these ‘skills’. I don’t think that’s the case for a moment. But I do think that the spirit of Pro Science, and indeed of the Edinburgh Award, is very much that it is OK to be interested in and to aspire to something that isn’t easily attainable – a concept, I think that is really out of fashion in Britain at the moment – although our post-Olympic glow does seem to have changed that slightly. I don’t think anyone is labouring under the delusion that Mo Farrah or Ellie Simmonds spend most of their time moping about on Facebook.

Sticking to subject clearly isn’t part of my personal skills set, those poor kids better be patient! I do think that it will be very interesting to see how my perspective of my own personal skills and development changes over the course of the next year from the perspective of the Edinburgh Award (because just in case I gave it away, I tend towards the side of cynicism with all these endlessly self-reflective analyses that have become so popular now, even though most people by and large don’t pay them any real attention. Remember those ‘self assessment forms they kept giving you at school? Exactly. Point made.) Also, because despite all my ranting and rambling, I’m really keen to give the Edinburgh Award a try. And who knows? By the end of the year, perhaps I, and the rest of the Pro Science team, will have become so refined at self-reflection and analysis that we’ll never be unemployable again . . .

Training and fraudulent CVs

1st entry: 13th October

My first entry into this log! Seeing as I haven’t actually been into a school yet, there isn’t too much to report – but a few words about the application process and our training seems like it might be handy for reflecting back on later.

So the application process – like many things, it began with one of those emails that appear in our university inboxes, which any student with a rational sense of self-preservation just deletes without opening. I must have been feeling a little masochistic that morning – or maybe the endorphins from the early morning power-walk to the King’s Buildings in the cold were to blame. Anyway, the email was opened and I found myself getting really excited about the Pro Science project. In a nutshell the idea is that 2nd year science students from Edinburgh University go into local schools to help out in some capacity with science lessons (or clubs, projects etc), with a view to encouraging more students to pursue higher education in science.

From a selfish perspective the project sounded fantastic because I am really interested in science communication and the Pro Science project seemed like a great way to get some experience communicating verbally – with a not necessarily receptive audience. I also just empathised with the project generally – I came to be studying physics through a string of unlikely circumstances, and whilst I’m now really happy with my degree choice, I’m very aware of all the preconceptions and prejudices surrounding science degrees.

I also felt a bit of a fraud when piecing together my application – I have worked with young people before, but always in a theatrical context, never an academic one. That brings me to my other point – why am I trying to convince people that further education in science is a good idea, when I spend all of my spare time acting, dancing, drawing and writing – all things that most people just would not associate with a science student? Eventually, rather than trying to avoid this, I made it the ‘theme’ of my application letter – generally, that I’d like students to realise that science isn’t – or doesn’t have to be – an imposing, isolated and exclusive world that excludes anyone with an interest in anything else. So under my ‘work experience’ section, I just included anything that involved working with young people and communicating generally. This probably made for a rather odd CV –the bulk of my work with teenagers involves helping out every summer as a voluntary make-up artist with National Youth Ballet. Although, arguably, if I can convince a teenage boy that, yes, he does need to wear eye-liner on stage, then convincing someone that maths can be interesting should be a doddle. Transferable skills!

After an interview with Katie Hudson – the founder of Pro Science - where we chatted about my rather eccentric CV and how I would respond if a student asked me why they should bother with science – and a wait of a few days, I received confirmation of my place on the project. Then it was just a matter of a couple of training sessions and we’d be let loose on the local schools!

The sessions were up at the King’s Buildings between about 5 and 8 for two evenings. I don’t think many people would claim to enjoy spending time at the King’s Buildings – something about the maze-like layout, the uphill trek to get there and the fact that the arts students are all basically unaware of its existence, all contribute to making it feel a bit like the Mordor of Edinburgh University. But, that said, I still wasn’t really sure what the project wanted from us and I also wasn’t complaining that we were all going to have our PVG disclosures (necessary for working with young people – or indeed anyone that can be defined as ‘vulnerable’) arranged and paid for.

In the end the rough structure of the training turned out to be this: the first session we heard from a student who had worked on the Pro Science project last year, and then from Neil, a representative of Edinburgh University who took us through what science communication means, and what the further reaching implications of the project could be; the second session we were spoken to by a practising teacher about how to deal with certain situations that might arise, and how to get through to different students, and finally 2 representatives for the ‘East Scotland’ sector of the STEM Ambassadors scheme.

So to explain a little bit – STEM Ambassadors are people with a background in any of the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) who, as the name suggests, act as ambassadors for those subjects. Pro Science very much falls under the STEM umbrella, and so all Pro Science volunteers also register as STEM ambassadors, and it’s through this affiliation that our PVG administration is handled. Frank and Kevin, the STEM representatives for East Scotland, were also able to provide us with a lot of information about how to actually conduct ourselves in schools. Patrick, the high school teacher, and Oonagh, who worked on the project past year, were also able to give us lots of pointers. As much as this project is about enthusing students about the sciences, in reality it involves working with schools, which like any institutions have their own rules, challenges and internal politics.

For example, as much as we might want to self-congratulate for committing to a voluntary project, it’s easy to imagine how irritating it could be for an over-worked teacher to be presented with a bright-eyed undergraduate and told to find a way to make them useful. Especially when it will be a good few weeks until they can really know whether that student is actually going to bother showing up regularly. Another aspect is that the kids themselves might not be interested – or alternatively, they might be really interested and we might get showered with questions we’ve no idea how to answer off the top of our heads! So this project isn’t really just about ‘being inspirational’. It’s going to require us to be motivational, to think on our feet, and also to be genuinely dedicated.

I suppose another factor is that every one of us is coming into this project for different reasons. Maybe to expand a CV, to get some experience working with young people, or perhaps just a genuine passion for science that should be shared! Whatever the reason, it’s going to be really interesting to see what different people get from the next year, and to see how we all feel coming out of the project. Looking back on these notes in retrospect will probably be quite interesting as well! Maybe we’ll all wonder just what we were thinking . . .

I’ll finish on that note for the moment. I don’t get to meet my school until the 26th because half term is coming up (humph, half-term) – but some other volunteers have already started to meet their staff and students. Next week we have a session that will inform us about integrating Pro Science with achieving the Edinburgh Award. More on that next time!