David Overton and Tina Overton investigate a collaboration between chemistry students and teaching students to deliver lessons in primary schools

Higher education institutions (HEIs) place increasing value on outreach activity related to the sciences and they are being encouraged to develop this area by UK government policy.1 There are various reasons for undertaking outreach activity including using it as a vehicle for science communication and as a way of impacting on social mobility. HEIs invest staff time and resources in outreach largely to inspire the next generation of scientists while raising the profile of their institution. Outreach is usually carried out by enthusiastic and committed individuals who aim to promote their subject and inspire the recipients. Much of the activity is delivered in schools or in HEIs to school students.

outreach teaching

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There are some studies that document outreach work and attempt to evaluate its impact2,3,4 but such research is not widespread. Anecdotal evidence suggests outreach activity does raise aspirations in the learner but work is needed to identify its broader impact. The impact beyond the recipients of the outreach activity is even less well understood.

Our project

This study focuses on our implementation of an outreach project that delivered inspirational and engaging chemistry activities to 80 primary school students over four afternoons. The project involved collaboration between third year chemistry undergraduates who were undertaking this activity as an assessed group project, and teacher education undergraduates (teaching students) at various stages of their degree who were participating on a voluntary basis. The two groups of students pursued their courses on different campuses, some fifty miles apart, of the same university.

The aim of the project was to bring two different sets of expertise together for the benefit of all participants

The rationale for this collaboration was to exploit the different expertise of the two undergraduate cohorts. The chemists were to plan a series of chemistry-based learning experiences and to deliver these with the support of the teaching students in a local primary school. In this way, we exploited the ‘expert’ subject knowledge of the chemists and the classroom expertise of the teaching students. Undergraduates undertaking placements in schools are usually nervous about the environment and what is expected of them. This is particularly true for placements in primary schools, where there are additional worries about use of appropriate language, behaviour management and the role the undergraduate student is expected to take. Teaching students delivering science in primary schools typically have little science background but do have knowledge of how to engage with primary school children and of classroom management. The aim of this project was to bring these two different sets of expertise together for the benefit of all participants. 

Typically, around ten chemists chose this as their third year group project. For these students, this activity was credit-bearing and they were assessed on the outcomes. Around 15 teaching students took part on a voluntary, extracurricular basis. The project was launched through an initial meeting between all the students and the two tutors – one chemist and one teacher educator. This meeting detailed the logistics of the project and provided an opportunity for the students to acquaint themselves as individuals and to hear about aspects of their respective courses. In view of the distance between the campuses, an online forum was set up on the university virtual learning environment (VLE) to facilitate subsequent communication between the students. The chemists then planned and trialled a number of practical hands-on activities in their campus laboratories and posted outcomes on the VLE forum for comment by the teaching students.

Prior to each visit to the primary school, a further face-to-face session was held during which the chemists rehearsed the chemistry activities they had planned. The teaching students took the role of the school pupils and were able to offer feedback to the chemists on the effectiveness of the latter’s teaching and communication strategies and the appropriateness of the chemistry content to the age and ability of the primary school pupils. Finally, both groups of students delivered the activities in school for about 90 minutes per week for four weeks. Because of the previous practice sessions, the role of the teaching students was that of co-deliverer, rather than just supporter, as they were familiar with the activities and understood the science behind each one.

The undergraduate students gathered written and verbal feedback from the pupils and teachers following delivery of the activities, which they used in their own reporting. The tutors observed the students throughout the study and both groups of undergraduate students were asked to complete semi-structured questionnaires anonymously at the end of the project.


All students reported that the experience had met or exceeded their expectations. For the chemists, a key feature was the opportunity to practise intended activities in laboratories and again with the teaching students. They valued the advice provided on the appropriateness of the activity plans. The chemists, in the third year of undergraduate study, had good subject content knowledge in chemistry and they had planned appropriate primary school science activities with subsequent endorsement through collaboration with peers and teaching students. Nevertheless, they found it difficult to communicate this subject knowledge to children. Related discussions with, and feedback from, teaching students enabled the chemists to adjust their use of language, prompts and questions.

The primary school children were fully engaged in the activities the students delivered

Feedback from the teaching students to the chemists in the online forum mostly related to practical issues around resourcing, time management and relevance of content to the current primary national curriculum.5 Interactions between the two groups of students during the practice sessions were much richer. The teaching students commented, positively or in a critically supportive way, on aspects of the activities or the delivery of them. Many of the chemistry students admitted they lacked confidence in their role as a teacher and in their ability to select appropriate child-centred vocabulary or appropriate prompts and questions. This face-to-face feedback from the teaching students enabled the chemists to adjust their delivery in terms of language, pace and tone.

The teaching students were visibly excited by the practical activities and keen to learn the scientific knowledge underpinning the phenomena. The teaching students’ role as ‘children’ during these practice sessions gave them license to plead lack of previous experience and to adopt a naive but inquisitive stance. Through this process, the teaching students extended their subject content and pedagogical knowledge. The chemists responded to support, suggestions and modelling by the teaching students, consequently developing their communication skills.

When the sessions were delivered in the school, the children were fully engaged in the activities. The chemists and teaching students delivered the activities in partnership, the teaching students having become familiar with the chemistry and the chemists having been able to explore aspects of level and communication before encountering the children.

Data from student questionnaires

The chemists were motivated to become involved in this project because they had already decided that they wanted to teach or that they wanted to gain experience of teaching. They identified benefits in terms of developing employability skills, especially effective group work and communication. Communicating with the children was the biggest challenge for the chemists but they identified that collaboration with the teaching students helped them to overcome this barrier. Although the chemists were involved in this project as the subject knowledge experts, they identified that their basic science knowledge had greatly increased. Examples of the chemists’ responses are shown in the table below.

Benefits of collaborationExample response
Employability skills

It is helpful working together as a team for better productivity.
Developed group working skills.


Learned how to communicate with children.
I have gained experience of the appropriate language with which knowledge could be conveyed to children.
Ability to explain scientific concepts to a range of abilities.
The teaching students helped us to communicate with the pupils and helped us overcome the language communication barrier.

Subject knowledge

I feel like I have learned a lot of basic science through researching and understanding concepts to be able to explain them in a simplified way to the pupils.


For the teaching students, the main benefits of being involved in this project were that their subject knowledge was greatly increased and that they came away with a set of ready-made science activities that they can implement in their future classroom practice. The experience of supporting the chemists in the classroom developed their communication skills as they supported these non-experts in the classroom. The teaching students all identified that the experience was directly relevant and beneficial to their future careers in teaching. Examples of the teaching students’ comments are shown in the table below. 

Benefits of collaborationExample response
Employability skills

It is always helpful to work alongside colleagues from different agencies/backgrounds and so this was great experience for working with colleagues who do not necessarily have the awareness and skills that teacher training has provided me … I think this will be useful for working with new members of staff and/or parents/other adults in the classroom in the future.


I think we supported the chemistry students in how to deliver information and concepts to the children at their level, helping to adjust language in order to ensure the children could access the sessions and gain understanding. Techniques in how to operationalise the sessions and very minor behaviour management strategies.

Subject knowledge

I feel that I had to draw on my subject knowledge that had been learned on placement but I also learned through what the children were achieving and what the chemistry students were teaching.
I learned about different chemical reactions and why they work.
I improved my chemistry subject knowledge and have been reminded of the fun side of chemistry as my previous career was very much involved with a very serious side of the subject!

Benefit to future career

So informative and an excellent experience, where I learned how different resources could be used and activities designed to help children engage in hands-on practical activities when investigating.
Not only was it enjoyable and engaging for the children, it has improved my subject knowledge for chemistry aspects of the primary curriculum and provided me with some amazing ideas to use in my own teaching in the future.
Very good idea and important experience for learning about the importance of links between the school and outside communities, very beneficial in terms of the course of 3rd year BA primary students.



We have focused here on the benefits to the deliverers rather than to the recipients. Using undergraduates to deliver outreach is not in itself new. We believe the interdisciplinary partnership with teaching students is novel, drawing on the subject expertise of the chemists and the teaching expertise of the teaching students to the mutual benefit of all.

The project undoubtedly delivered engaging outreach activities and provided both groups of undergraduate participants with enhanced skills and knowledge

There were benefits in developing employability skills. The activities were logistically challenging to deliver and required detailed planning and organisation. Each group of students was collaborating with a very different group of students in terms of knowledge, skills and capabilities. Both groups of students developed excellent group working skills throughout the project. The chemists cited communication skills as a major skill developed through having to communicate effectively with the teaching students and with the children. Teaching students also recognised that their communication skills had been enhanced through their coaching and support of the chemists.

Enhanced subject knowledge was a growth area for all the undergraduates. Maybe surprisingly, for themselves at least, the chemists cited enhanced basic science knowledge. The teaching students recognised a steep increase in their science knowledge and their ability to put it into practice in the classroom in an engaging and safe way.

The project undoubtedly delivered engaging outreach activities and provided both groups of undergraduate participants with enhanced skills and knowledge. The participation of the teaching students in this project has much longer term benefits than most one-shot outreach activities. These teaching students will soon be practitioners in their own classrooms, in a position to influence a generation of children. If they leave this project with enhanced science knowledge and insight into how to deliver exciting science learning in the primary school, then this project has had much more influence than the more traditional form of outreach that influences only the direct recipients.

The outcomes of the project have delivered valuable teaching experience and employability skills development for chemists and teaching students and a long term influence of the future attitude of the teaching students towards science and how to teach it.

David Overton and Tina Overton are education officer and professor of chemistry education, respectively, in the school of chemistry at Monash University, Australia