Imperial College London

Scientists swing by Somerset supermarket to win over West Country whizz kids

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Volunteers at their 'Science in the Supermarket’ stand in Yeovil Tesco

Volunteers at their 'Science in the Supermarket’ stand in Yeovil Tesco

Imperial scientists set up shop in Yeovil Tesco to let passing families know about careers in STEM subjects.

Dr Stuart Higgins brought together a broad team from Imperial College London’s Department of Materials and School of Public Health, to spend the weekend in Tesco Extra in Yeovil, Somerset.

In August 2018, around five hundred shoppers met scientists and

This was our first attempt, and we learnt a lot. The plan now is to see how we can improve on this approach, to reach more young people in under-represented areas. Dr Stuart Higgins Department of Materials

researchers, blew bubbles to learn about cells, and made models of lungs to learn about air pollution, as part of a new initiative called ‘Science in the Supermarket’.

The UK is facing a national shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-trained individuals, for example producing an estimated 20,000 fewer engineering graduates, and 25,000 fewer engineering apprentices, each year than needed.

Dr Higgins, who is from Crewkerne, Somerset, was inspired to engage his home county’s people with science after hearing that the number of young people going into higher education is well below the national average in parts of the county.

He said: “Studying science and engineering opens so many doors for young people, and not just in becoming a scientist. I was lucky to have amazing teachers at school who inspired me, and I hope by bringing scientists to meet young people in Somerset, we can inspire the next generation.

“Reaching a rural area that's far away from large cities and universities proved particularly challenging, as did working in a busy supermarket environment. However, we found that we were still able to engage hundreds of people over one weekend, with many commenting on how unusual it was to see a science outreach stand in the area.”

Children speaking to volunteers and interacting with the stand
Children speaking to volunteers and interacting with the stand

Many of the Imperial volunteers on the stand originally came from the West Country, adding a local link to the interactions. Visitors to the stand could find out more about different university and vocational routes for studying STEM subjects, and the career benefits they can bring. The project has also created an interactive online map featuring places people can visit across the West Country that have links to STEM subjects.

Dr Higgins hopes this is just the starting point. He said: “This was our first attempt, and we learnt a lot. The plan now is to see how we can improve on this approach, to reach more young people in under-represented areas.”

‘Science in the Supermarket’ is funded by Imperial’s Societal Engagement Seed Fund, which supports staff and students to pilot new types of engagement activity.

Dr Amy Seakins, Engagement Coordinator at Imperial, said: “The seed fund aims to help people try out new ideas for engaging the public with their research, whether that’s piloting a new approach to engagement, trying to reach a new audience, or working with a collaborator for the first time.

"We are really excited about ‘Science in the Supermarket’ and its potential to engage members of the public in conversations with researchers, all in a setting where they might not be expecting it!”

Other volunteers taking part included Annalisa Sheehan (Faculty of Medicine), William Skinner (Undergraduate, Department of Materials), and Dr Akemi Nogiwa (Department of Materials).

Reporter

Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
Communications and Public Affairs

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415
Email: caroline.brogan@imperial.ac.uk

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