Matthew Wilson is a teacher of chemistry at St. Thomas of Aquin’s RC High School in Edinburgh. Matthew and fellow teacher Claire Ritchie received funding from the Chemistry Teaching Empowerment Fund to run a teacher and industry networking event in January 2020. Here, Matthew tells us about his experience and passes on his tips for anyone thinking of running a similar event.

Picture of people talking in groups

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What made you decide to apply for the fund?

Claire and I are lead teachers for the city of Edinburgh, and every couple of months we organise a network meeting of chemistry teachers. Sometimes these meetings can get a bit repetitive, and it was becoming clear that many people wanted an event that was not in a classroom after school and was branching out a little bit more to industrial contacts.

The idea was to do a speed dating event with people in industry and hold a networking session afterwards with snacks, goody bags and wine to encourage people to come along. However, there’s absolutely no money in education to organise that sort of thing. To host it in an external venue we were going to have to pay janitorial staff to stay on past their contracted hours, look at reimbursing people for parking and of course pay for the goody bags. We spoke to our local education coordinator Laura-Alexandra, and when she said we could run the event using the Chemistry Teaching Event Empowerment Fund we were both surprised – we didn’t know it could be used in that way!

Why did you want to run the event?

Prior to teaching I worked in research. When we did outreach to schools I remember how much the teachers were amazed at how engaging it was. Despite just being in teaching for five years and having delivered that outreach in the past, I’m forgetting it now. Additionally, friends who still work in industry or at the university tell me that they’d like to come out to schools or network with teachers, but the reality is that so many teachers don’t know what’s out there. That’s why the whole idea of the speed dating session was a pilot study to see how well it was received both by teachers and invited guests. We had four guests in total, as a few unfortunately pulled out at the last minute.

What did you want to get out of the event?

Effectively, we wanted to get teachers to realise the opportunities available to connect with industry and go away and say ‘I’m going to contact this person’, ‘we’re going to take the school to that person’ or ‘we’ll get them to come to us’. That’s not just reinvigorating the teachers in the classroom, but in my mind that’s also going to help the students see more of a relevance and be more engaged with chemistry on a wider scale. That was one of my main goals – to reinvigorate the teachers in our local authority, which would in turn invigorate our students.

Our turnout wasn’t as good as expected, which we think is down to it being a busy time of year with schools running prelims. So if we run it again, we would do it earlier in the year around August or September time. In the feedback, the teachers said they really enjoyed it and, if anything, the numbers were just right. Although we had a few people pull out last minute, it actually seemed to be a good thing because it meant that we got to spend more time with each invited guest. On top of that, the people from outside education said they got a lot from the teachers in terms of feedback on what would be good for them to have. I think it benefited not only the teachers but also the guests.

Are there any tips you could give to other teachers wanting to run a similar event?

My main tip would be to start asking people to put the date in their diary early, particularly the invited guests. We only really started seeking the guests less than two months before the event – and that was too short notice for a lot of them, so we struggled to get people to come along. If you’re looking to invite teachers from across an authority, another thing I would suggest is to carefully consider the location and make sure it’s accessible to everyone you want to come. Thirdly, if teachers cite childcare as an excuse not to attend, highlight the Grants for Carers funding that is available through the RSC.

How did you approach your invited guests and get them on board?

I emailed people but didn’t get the best response, so my local education coordinator Laura-Alexandra helped me approach people through STEM ambassadors. The majority that responded were STEM ambassadors, in fact. I also spoke to the outreach officers at the school of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and they put me in contact with a couple of people. I would say that it’s best to go through someone in outreach or your local education coordinator as they’re more likely to get a response than a random email from a school is. However, I have run something similar before in the school for the children when I targeted parents who I knew were in a STEM career, and they were delighted to come in. Another thing I would do in future is email all the chemistry teachers in the authority and ask if they have any contacts or established partnerships, and whether they might be able to approach them on my behalf.

What would you say you got out of running the event?

Now that I’ve run my first event I would be more confident organising one again in the future. I’m more aware of people’s needs and would be open to using the suggestions that we got in the feedback. It was also a small lesson in not leaving things to the last minute! I learned about delegating tasks and that you’ll definitely need to chase them up. Next time I’ll know the pitfalls and feel more in control.

From the event itself, I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with all four guests. I walked away with ideas for the classroom, as well as ideas for what to do in terms of outreach and taking classes to different places outside of school.

Do you have any advice for other teachers wanting to apply to the fund?

I was surprised at how easy it was. If in doubt, contact your local education coordinator. Be honest in your application.

Want to run your own event like Matthew’s and Claire’s?

Find out more about how to apply for the Chemistry Teaching Empowerment Fund today.