Science backpacks, tech help for the elderly and supporting the local response

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girl sitting at table with materials

Imperial’s White City Community Engagement team have been working with community partners to support local residents in White City.

Imperial’s White City Community Engagement team has been working with community partners to deliver science backpack activity kits to local families, provide tech support to elderly residents, and general support to local residents and community members during the COVID-19 lockdown.

As part of the College’s commitment to support families living around the White City Campus, the White City Community Engagement and Public Engagement teams have partnered with the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’s (LBHF) Family Assist team to identify 241 children who would most benefit from receiving their own ‘Science Backpack’ during the lockdown. The backpacks contain fascinating science-inspired activities that can be easily done from home, with all equipment provided. 

Engaging science

We hope the backpacks are just the beginning of our relationship with these families during lockdown Andrew Brooks Public Engagement Programmer and Practitioner at The Invention Rooms

Since the beginning of June, over 240 free backpacks have been hand-delivered to families living in the W12 postcode next to the White City Campus. Four different backpacks were designed to engage children aged from 6 to 16 years old.

Younger children were equipped with over 20 science-focused activities that were designed to spark interest in STEM and create a sense of togetherness when working on the activities with their families. Activities include exploring invisible ink, creating squishy circuits, and making an energy-saving car. For older children, activities were more in-depth, mentally stimulating, and aspirational. These included making their own synth kit and a solar-powered robot.

two girls sitting at a table with backpacks on it and synth keyboard kits
Naomi and Hannah, working on their synth keyboards at home

All the packs included all equipment needed to work through the activities. This meant that all recipients could take part without needing to worry about having the right materials to hand.

Priya Pallan, Community Engagement Manager, said: “There’s plenty of online STEM resources available, but many families across the UK do not have access to reliable internet or multiple gadgets at home for each child. The Science Backpacks have been designed to support local families who may not have consistent access to such resources. COVID-19 has highlighted the struggles that families are facing across the UK. We hope that receiving a backpack with interactive, hands-on resources will help support their learning during lockdown – especially when schools are closed.”

Staff in LBHF’s Family Assist team, who advised on and helped design the contents of the packs, have also been trained to answer queries around the activities to help families who need additional support - children and their families can call their dedicated hotline with questions.

“We hope the backpacks are just the beginning of our relationship with these families during lockdown,” said Andrew Brooks, Public Engagement Programmer, and Practitioner at The Invention Rooms. “We’re also in the process of creating a series of virtual and takeaway activities to engage local families with the science and research happening in their community at our White City campus. We have some great activities in store for when lockdown lifts as well.”

In a personal letter, the White City Community Engagement team has invited recipients of the Science Backpacks to The Invention Rooms for dedicated ‘making sessions’ once the UK lockdown comes to an end. These sessions aim to nurture meaningful relationships between Imperial and the local community. Older children can then apply for Imperial’s Maker Challenge programmes.

The Science Backpacks were made possible through the generous financial support of Novartis, whose UK headquarters are located in White City, and the Mohn Westlake Foundation

Removing digital barriers

The team has gone further to break down digital barriers during lockdown through the Business School's flagship community initiative What the Tech!?, which has moved online since the UK lockdown began.

a group of young and old people sitting around a table with laptops, phones and tablets
A What the Tech!? session pre-lockdown

What the Tech!? is run by volunteer staff and students at Imperial who usually provide free weekly drop-in sessions offering tech support and advice for elderly residents in two community locations around the White City Campus. Volunteers help with a wide range of tech issues, from learning how to text and send photos, to creating videos and fixing printers.

During COVID-19, What the Tech!? has been helping isolated older residents by matching them with a phone buddy for tech and befriending support, offering them up to two thirty-minute sessions every week via telephone or video call with a dedicated Imperial volunteer. 43 local residents have been regularly using the service, including attendees from the in-person sessions, as well as newcomers who have been referred to the programme by local organisations.

Through this project, the White City Community Team has been able to signpost vulnerable residents to local support services such as food shopping and medicine collection and use the calls to check in fortnightly to ensure they are okay.

“A heart-warming experience” 

Neema Nkontchou, Undergraduate in the Department of Bioengineering, has been volunteering her time to give residents tech support. She said: “Helping the elderly to stay connected through technology during COVID-19 has been a heart-warming experience and has opened my eyes to the many things we take for granted in today's society." 

Feedback from participants has shown that the sessions are useful to stay connected with friends and family and accessing services online, but also show that residents have appreciated the opportunity to speak to someone and share their worries around COVID-19.

Josie, a local resident (pictured), was having difficulties making online payments. Thanks to Neema, she has been able to manage her finances online: “In the beginning I was not very good, I was struggling to pay my bill online and Neema helped me to sort this, that’s how it started. We talk now as friends and she is really lovely.”

Another resident has also expressed their gratitude for the support during lockdown: “It’s been wonderful to connect with George. We are both Greek and when we speak it’s like I’m connecting with a member of my own family.”

Imperial support

Since the lockdown, Imperial staff and students have continued to provide vital support to the local community, whether through delivering surplus food to local food banks and community projects, or supporting Queen’s Park Rangers Community Trust to digitise their exercise classes for older residents to keep active at home. To find out more about Imperial’s work with local communities around the White City Campus, please email


Amna Siddiq

Amna Siddiq
Office of the President

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Martha Salhotra

Martha Salhotra
Communications Division

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Coronavirus, Comms-strategy-Learning-and-teaching, Comms-strategy-Real-world-benefits, White-City-Campus, Comms-strategy-Wider-society, White-City-Community-Engagement
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