Stuart Strathdee wanted to give his students a better chance to explore chemistry’s real-world applications. He shares what he’s learned about approaches, benefits and challenges after partnering with a university to provide project opportunities 

School students get a thorough grounding in chemistry theory and in associated mathematical and practical skills. But there’s rarely time for anything more than a cursory exploration of chemistry’s real-world applications. This seems particularly so for students studying the new linear A-level specification in England.

It removes potential opportunities to inspire students with the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs and introduce them to the huge range of career opportunities that studying chemistry provides. As one of my students commented, ‘Getting young people interested is so important. We need new people with new ideas or nothing’s going to change.’

To remedy this in my college, I set up Real World Chemistry, a project aimed at bringing a real-world perspective to the 16–18 curriculum while helping students develop their team-working, research and communication skills. Projects like this can also provide an excellent basis for longer-term collaboration between schools or colleges and universities.

Real world chemistry

Three people gathered round a scientific poster

Source: Stuart Strathdee

Participants on the Real World Chemistry project presenting their poster 

Staff and postgraduate students from Huddersfield University’s school of applied sciences mentored 30 final year A-level chemistry students who investigated topics as varied as climate change and antibiotic resistance over six months. The project culminated this spring with an evening of slideshows and poster presentations to an invited audience of representatives from local industry, schools, universities and other science, technology, engineerings and maths (STEM) organisations.

There were many challenges, but the project proved to be a great success: no students had previously presented to a large audience, but they all did so brilliantly, and talked knowledgeably and enthusiastically about their projects. Not only did all participants improve their self-confidence and team-working, organisational and research skills, they were inspired to pursue careers in STEM.

I learned lots about setting up and running a school–university partnership science project along the way.

Getting buy-in

When setting up a project like this, it helps to have a university contact who can help arrange facilities and recruit mentors. Having management support from your school or college is also important, so the proposal needs to link its aims to the strategic objectives of both your school or college and partner organisation.

To promote the project to students, I organised an event with the university at which the university lecturers gave five-minute presentations summarising their research, which covered a very broad range. Students then chose the topics that they most wanted to investigate.

We allocated teams according to students’ topic preferences, and often students did not previously know each other. This helped build teamworking skills, and nearly all the students found the experience enjoyable.

Balancing freedom and support

I was keen to avoid being too prescriptive about what students did for their projects, to maximise opportunities for creativity and discovery. I also wanted to give them free rein to benefit from their mentors’ expertise and to take responsibility for making their own arrangements to meet and communicate with their mentors.

However, while some teams relished the freedom to plan and carry out their projects, were proactive, met their mentors regularly and worked completely independently, others would have appreciated more guidance, especially early on. A project like this would benefit from a detailed briefing to the mentors as well as weekly introductory sessions on general topics such as researching, referencing, data analysis and making presentations and posters.

Fitting it into busy schedules

The main challenges were in maintaining communication and finding enough time to carry out the project within a busy term. Alongside the project, students had university visits, applications and interviews. It was hard to get all the students together at the same time.

Most teams used social media to communicate; not all students read or responded to emails. Some groups met regularly; other teams struggled to coordinate their peers’ and mentors’ schedules. It may have been better to set the dates for all the team meetings at the beginning, but this might deter some mentors from participating.

Overseeing and monitoring the progress of each team proved difficult for one person, particularly as only five of the participants were in my teaching groups. Sharing the burden with other members of staff and perhaps reducing numbers of teams or participants would make it easier to arrange regular meetings to monitor progress more effectively.

Would younger students benefit more?

One unresolved question is whether such a project might better suit students a year younger. The final year participants undoubtedly benefited in terms of personal development, and many students referred to their research in university personal statements and interviews. However, participation didn’t significantly affect their choice of degree, particularly because we selected students who were already considering studying chemistry. Younger students would find the projects harder, but are more likely to be influenced in their choice of what to do after completing school. Potential university or industrial project partners would see this as an advantage, as they seek to recruit keen apprentices or students.

Despite the challenges of running this project, I look forward to building on the successes of Real World Chemistry. Next, I hope to extend local industry involvement in the project.