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The Secret of Running a Successful STEM Club

A typical STEM Club activity will have the minimum of written instructions, not require any writing and involve every student getting hands on, says Lynn Nickerson...

  • The Secret of Running a Successful STEM Club

Jessica clutched her 2-litre bottle of diet cola carefully. She’d just created a series of holes around the top of it; and the next step was to thread a string of Mentos through a hole in the lid, then go outside, screw it on and release the string.

The other students were gathering their kit and we were all about to head outdoors when a squeal and a whooshing noise alerted us to the awesome sight of a fountain of cola reaching the ceiling while Jess tried frantically to cover the holes with her fingers and carry the eruption towards the door.

Intervention was hopeless. After 30 seconds it was all over. Wiping away the tears of laughter, we all joined in the clean-up.

After ten years the mark is still there on the ceiling to remind me of the funniest thing that has happened at Science Club. Jess is now a laboratory analyst and I have learned not to issue any Mentos until all bottles of cola have their tops firmly screwed on.

Lightbulb moments

Didcot Girls’ School Science Club began 20 years ago when a keen chemistry teacher set up a lunchtime club so girls could get more hands on experience with practical science.

When she left I didn’t want to see the club fold, so I volunteered to run it, and since then it has grown from the preserve of a few Year 7 science aficionados to two after-school clubs (lunchtimes are shorter now) to cater for all ages.

At first I stuck to running activities already designed for science clubs but as I became more experienced I got more creative and began to invent or adapt ideas to provide an hour of STEM fun for a group of 30, 40 (or on a few memorable occasions 60) girls.

I want to encourage practical skills, problem-solving and to cultivate an atmosphere where it is OK to fail. The important thing is for a girl to figure out what went wrong and why, then have another go and improve.

A typical activity will have the minimum of written instructions, not require any writing and involve every student getting hands on.

For younger girls, chemistry activities often involve fire, Bunsen burners, colour changes, fizzing, bangs and pops. Competitions are always popular, as are detective scenarios.

Last week the head of science popped in, cup of tea in hand, to see what we were doing.

Little did he know that 40 girls were analysing the rate of cooling of cups of tea to determine which of four suspects was responsible for leaving a cup of tea at exactly 65°C next to the “body of a murdered teacher”.

His name promptly shot up to the top of the list!

Senior Science Club is for year 9+. It tends to attract a smaller but no less enthusiastic clientele.

This is where I often work with the girls to test ideas – we might try out an experiment we’ve read about or seen on YouTube.

Once we decided to make our own paint – not by mixing existing colours but by creating the coloured pigments by chemical reactions.

How much of each reactant did we need to mix together to make lead iodide, a beautiful yellow solid?

I’ll never forget the light bulb moment when Tessa exclaimed “I know how to do this!” Her lessons on balancing equations and mole calculations suddenly came to life and she started scribbling down figures and then triumphantly and correctly announced how much of each we needed.

Amazing opportunities

As a scientist I love sharing investigations and experiments with students.

Over the years they have earned CREST Awards, won local and national competitions and been on countless visits to local universities and STEM companies, all of which I have probably enjoyed as much as the girls.

However, Science Club has also given me opportunities to try some amazing things that you might not normally associate with STEM.

I never expected to be the producer of two short films with a professional director and crew, to help girls create a chemistry quilt from sheep’s wool, showcase a play we’d written at Earl’s Court, meet Tim Peake or to take students to the House of Lords to receive the STEM Inspiration Award for the outstanding STEM Club in the UK.

Awards and recognition provide special moments but it is the satisfaction of working with the girls week after week to have fun in the science lab without any success criteria or learning outcomes that makes running Science Club worthwhile.

My proudest achievement is that a former student, who came to Science Club for her whole seven years at Didcot Girls’ School, not only went on to study science at university but then became a science teacher and is now running her own Science Club. The future is in safe hands.


How to make sure your STEM Club is totally brilliant

Start simple

Base your initial sessions on tried and tested activities. Once the students are hooked you can get more adventurous. When you are ready, try some activities where you don’t know the outcome. Now you are doing real science and you and the kids can experience the thrill of making your own discoveries.

Teamwork

Don’t try to do everything yourself or running the club can become a burden. Involve technicians, colleagues, parents, older students or STEM Ambassadors. Never do anything a student can do – they can take a register, carry equipment, write on the board and clear up. It should become their club – not just yours

Enthusiasm

Your enthusiasm will rub off on the students so join in with the activities, get to know the kids and enjoy STEM together.

Mishaps

If something goes wrong or doesn’t work, help the students to work out why and then have another go – that’s what scientists and engineers do. Always have some spare supplies handy. They will make more mess than you think, spill things and use up all of whatever you put out. Always do a risk assessment. Then get hands on and have fun!


Lynn Nickerson DPhil, is STEM coordinator and science inclusion mentor at Didcot Girls’ School.

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