This content was produced by the advertising department of the Financial Times, in collaboration with BP
A suite of rooms on the second floor of London’s Science Museum is buzzing with activity. Around 40 students are demonstrating the creative ways they’ve met challenges as diverse as building a robot arm and making an effective rescue rocket after giving PowerPoint presentations on their methods.
This is the science fair finale to BP’s Ultimate STEM Challenge (that’s STEM for science, technology, engineering and maths) and as the judges tour the stands of the 12 finalists to decide on the winners, there is plenty going on. But while every team was able to produce detailed charts recording the scientific methods behind their experiments (including the results of a homemade wind tunnel set up in the living-room of a boy from Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet), these formed only 50 per cent of the marks. The judges were also looking to reward clear communication, teamwork and creativity. And the winner on the day had perhaps the most creative idea – borrowing from nature to improve the wing design of their paper airplanes.
They aren’t skills traditionally associated with science – the arts seem to have a monopoly on the idea of creativity, for example – but they are all needed by working scientists.
Competition judge Simon Webster is chief engineer for materials in BP’s Upstream Engineering Centre. “I think communication is one of the key skills in the workplace,” he says. “If you know the information but you can’t communicate it in a way that your peers and executives understand, then it won’t have any impact.
“I don’t think people realise the breadth of what scientists get involved with. It’s all about problem solving. Seeing a problem and using creativity to find ways forward.”
Fellow judge Yvonne Baker agrees. She worked as a chemical engineer before becoming chief executive of STEM Learning, an organisation that provides support to teachers of STEM subjects through training, resources and a network of STEM Ambassadors who work in the world of science and bring their understanding to the classroom.
“As an engineer you are always working as part of a team; you can’t solve any problem on your own,” she says. “I worked with all kinds of multi-disciplinary teams, including graduate engineers, apprentices, riggers, electricians, plumbers, lab technicians, all with something to bring. You have to be able to work and communicate with everyone.”
The communication challenge extends beyond the workplace, according to another of the judges. Tom O’Leary is director of learning at the Science Museum Group where he says he has to make sure that science is made relevant to all.
“My standard for what we put on in the museum is that the general population needs to be able to understand it,” he says. “The challenges facing us in the world today are very complex – genetically-modified food, vaccinations, artificial intelligence – and they do need to be communicated clearly or it can lead to misunderstanding, as we’ve seen with some of these issues in the past.
“We need scientists who can articulate these challenges, choices and solutions so people don’t feel excluded from the decision-making process or remote from people who are doing the science.”
Those working to promote STEM learning in the UK believe that emphasising the key skills involved in science jobs – and dispelling stereotypes of white-haired professors and middle-aged men with beards – can help reverse the trend of young people giving up STEM subjects at the age of 16, when they choose their A-levels. Certainly research into career aspirations carried out by King’s College London as part of the ASPIRES project found that while around 70 per cent of 10- to 14-year-olds found school science interesting, only around 15 per cent of them wanted to be scientists.
As students at the Ultimate STEM Challenge final were put through their paces in carefully prepared challenges, Baker hoped the message would be heard in science classrooms across the country.
“If science is taught well – and we have a lot of good science teachers – then you can develop such skills from that basis,” she said. “What we see in the Ultimate STEM Challenge is the epitome of this – young people taught by dedicated teachers applying their knowledge to an unfamiliar problem, in creative ways, to come up with solutions.”
How a nature documentary inspired the winners of this year’s
BP science competition
After a hard session testing paper airplanes at their school’s lunchtime STEM Club, 12-year-olds Amelie (plane designer), Cathryn (experimenter) and Hattie (head of presentation) were looking to better their 3.9m record. The aim was to find the best wing design for a remote-controlled survey aircraft – one of the categories in BP’s Ultimate STEM Challenge competition.
A few weeks later the inspiration came from David Attenborough. Amelie was at home watching Planet Earth II when she heard about Draco lizards that can spread out their ribs and the connecting membranes to create a wing-like shape enabling them to glide from tree to tree.
“I thought this was great as they didn’t need to flap their wings like birds, they could just fly,” says Amelie, who took the idea back to her team. At the following Friday’s STEM Club at Bredon Hill Academy in Evesham, Worcestershire, they started testing paper planes with a lizard-wing shape. Sure enough, these modified designs flew an impressive 7.4m.
To win the competition the girls then had to demonstrate the scientific rigour of their experiments, present their findings to an audience of more than 100 people at London’s Science Museum and answer the judges’ questions as they stood at their stand at the science fair that followed.
“It’s given me a lot of experience, especially presenting in front of a big crowd,” says Amelie, who thinks she’d like to work in science, although probably more on the design side than her doctor parents.
The girls were following in the footsteps of a previous team from Bredon Hill Academy – finalists in 2016 – a further tribute to their science teacher, Sally Huntly, who remains modest about her role. “I just gave them the brief and asked them questions rather than giving directions,” she says. “The girls clearly have the ability to think outside the box and they were a good foil for each other, constantly challenging each other and questioning each step.”
For their winning prize the three girls and their classmates were awarded the Ultimate STEM Lesson which saw them being whisked away to iFLY in Milton Keynes, an indoor skydiving centre, where they met Reggie Yates and completed a series of flight-themed activities as part of a mission to understand the science of flight.
How Ultimate STEM Challenge judge Rose Russell created a climate for
scientific discovery in her school’s STEM Club
In 2010, art, design and technology technician Rose Russell heard the then president of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Peter Hansford, make a speech about the lack of girls engaging with STEM. She went back to her school, Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls’ school in Ilford, and set up a STEM Club.
Based in her DT room, she kept the doors open at lunchtimes and after school and was rewarded with a stream of girls keen to take on the kind of science projects demanded by various national science competitions.
“Students say they go into a science lesson and learn theory, and they can’t see the point of it,” says Russell, who started out as a sample machinist straight from school before becoming a quality controller in the clothes factories of Hackney and Dalston. “But with a competition they start researching according to a brief and then they can see the real relevance of what they are learning.”
For three consecutive years – from 2012 to 2014 – the school made the finals of the National Science and Engineering Competition, now called the Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Competition. One year a judge came up to Russell and asked for her help to decide between the two teams the school had in the finals, because they were both so good. She refused, of course, and both teams won major prizes.
The school’s success in such competitions meant the girls had fantastic experiences –attending events at the Science Museum, visiting the Houses of Parliament and meeting Bill Gates. Six years on, that original cohort of students from the STEM Club are now applying to university – some of them to be mechanical and civil engineers.
Russell, who’s been at Ursuline Academy for 24 years, has also won a string of awards – including one from the Design and Technology Association – for her role in promoting STEM subjects. And, as with this year’s BP Ultimate STEM Challenge, she now finds herself called upon to be a judge herself. But her secret is simple: “I love a competition,” she says.
Create a safe space for science
“We make the STEM Club fun, but there is still serious work to do. They work as a team and pick their roles – such as project manager and designer – and work to deadlines. These are serious life skills and they like it; I’ve seen girls who were meek and shy in Year 7 really grow in confidence.”
If you want to raise standards, enter a competition
“I’ve seen the impact it has. The pupils see others having success and they want to emulate it.”
Think how to stand out and impress the judges
“I used to come away from competitions and think we should have won. But now that I have been a judge I can see how hard it is to decide between teams when standards are really high. You have to imagine what will make the judges think: ‘Wow’. It’s about following the brief and then going beyond it.”