Thinking of the children

I was given the task of writing a piece on the primary school science club I help run which is to appear in UCL’s Volunteering Services Unit (VSU) annual review as a showcase of the work the Unit funds. This is what I came up with—comments and suggestions are much appreciated.

The scant paragraph in the VSU’s weekly email asked simply for ‘two or three enthusiastic scientists to assist with running a school science club’. Not wanting to turn down an opportunity to affirm our scientific prowess, four volunteers-to-be enlisted and met for coffees in the Bloomsbury Café opposite the monolithic facade of the Chemistry building.

Under the wing of Dr Andrea Sella, UCL Chemistry lecturer and demonstrator extraordinaire, we set about planning a series of hour-long sessions suitable for the seven- to eleven-year-olds we would eventually be working with. Never short of innovation, UCL’s online learning environment became the electronic home of the Gillespie Science Club as we worked to collaborate on designing sessions and assemble a rota for the four of us, scheduling two people per session while ensuring that everyone was worked evenly as their respective schedules allowed.

The sessions themselves had a central theme—demonstrating the properties of dry ice, making glow-in-the-dark jelly, simulating a scale meteor strike; the usual—and involved giving a brief presentation on what we would be doing and then moving our aspiring young seekers of knowledge to a demo area where we performed our experiment, either a demonstration if dangerous substances were involved or in small groups in which they could each have a go.

The first few sessions went fairly smoothly, though for most of us it was the first time we’d worked with children and our charges’ capacity for belligerence (of the most endearing and inquisitive kind) did, at times, seem unending. After a time, however, something remarkable happened: we started to get comments from parents, some of whom had never before heard of the science club, expressing their admiration for our work. We had, it seemed, gained a reputation as bringers of empiricism—and of fun.

We had not only become men and women of some repute in the primary school community (with Dr Sella, the man behind the scenes, being nothing short of a celebrity) but we gradually learned how best to capture the attention of the students and keep them engaged while developing in them the skills needed of future scientists, and indeed of future non-scientists if they are to fully understand the world around them. Long-winded presentations were a no-no, but any opportunity for the kids to show off their knowledge was lapped up. Some children were louder than others, but with some effort we worked to ensure the quieter ones were heard.

One thing that every one of us noticed and was astounded by was the children’s curiosity. Almost all of our tutees asked lots of questions, some of them very astute, and we did our best to encourage it. Most people, it seems, learn to suppress this curiosity for one reason or another. With luck, there will be ten boys and girls out there who continue to ask questions of their teachers and superiors, and never stop doing so. See if you can spot them.