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STEM Ambassadors: inspiring students and dispelling myths


During British Science Week 2016, Dr Becky Cook looks at the role of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) Ambassadors at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, in enthusing young people in these subjects.

Posted on 16 March, 2016 by Dr Becky Cook

Lauren Wright (left) and Hannah Brewer at a STEM Ambassador careers activity at Lilian Baylis Technology School in London.

Lauren Wright (left) and Hannah Brewer at a STEM Ambassador careers activity at Lilian Baylis Technology School in London.


As a child, I loved science lessons but rarely had the opportunity to explore science outside the classroom, so I now feel very passionate about promoting and encouraging outreach volunteering.

During my PhD and postdoc, I took part in numerous outreach activities, including student project-judging at the Science Museum, careers speed dating at ExCeL London and hands-on demonstrations at after-school science clubs.

Although I am no longer a ‘practising’ scientist in the lab, I continue to take part in outreach events and use my interest and commitment to promote the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) Ambassador scheme and other volunteering outreach opportunities to staff at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and students.

Scientists that visit schools and interact with students open up a whole world of science to young people, giving them practical and real-world experiences and insights into the myriad of different scientific careers available.

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET) has developed several programmes to inspire young people in STEM subjects.

In particular, they have the UK’s only network of volunteer STEM Ambassadors. There are over 30,000 ambassadors nationally, who cover a wide range of STEM careers. Ambassadors contribute to various different types of activities to engage students in these subjects; raise of awareness of different STEM careers; and help teachers deliver the curriculum in innovative ways.

Insights into the scheme

At the ICR, we actively promote the STEM Ambassador scheme to ICR staff and students, and have worked with STEMNET to host induction and teacher-Ambassador networking events on site to promote further the hugely effective and important scheme.

Our STEM Ambassador programme is continuing to grow and we now have 31 STEM Ambassadors.

This week is British Science Week, a ten-day programme of events across the UK about science, technology, engineering and maths. So it seemed an appropriate time to speak to several of the ICR’s STEM Ambassadors to get their insights on the scheme.

The ICR's Ambassadors have been involved in many outreach activities from career talks, after-school science clubs, project and award judging, hands-on practical demonstrations, networking events and even building a ‘bug hotel’.

Their motivations for being a STEM Ambassador are often for similar reasons.

Anna Zachariou, Clinical Trial Coordinator in the Genetics and Epidemiology division at the ICR, said: “Biology has always been inspirational to me and it is great to have the opportunity to pass some of my enthusiasm to future generations. It is crucial to demonstrate to aspiring young pupils that there is so much to explore and get out of science than what they learn in classrooms.”

Emily Wholey, Scientific Officer in the Cancer Therapeutics division, is also an ICR STEM Ambassador. “I think the STEM Ambassador program is a great way to enthuse children and young people about science,” she said. “It’s a way of bringing to life what they learn in the classroom by linking it up to real-life application, often in a way their science teacher can’t.

“I do it because I enjoy engaging with children and young people and am excited to tell them about what we do at the ICR. I’ve had the opportunity to find what they’re interested in, have them ask questions, dispel myths about cancer and generally just have fun wearing nitrile gloves.”

Encouraging young people

There is a significant role for outreach volunteering to encourage young people to embark on STEM careers, according to Sharon Gowan, Senior Scientific Officer in the Cancer Therapeutics division: “STEM Ambassadors are important as we can help teaching, provide new ideas, show equipment most schools will never have and hopefully inspire the next generation of scientists to take over when we retire and provide fresh inspiration.”

This was a thought echoed by ICR STEM Ambassador Hannah Brewer, PhD student in the Genetics and Epidemiology division: "When I was in school, there was a myth that STEM subjects are difficult, boring, or not creative, and I think it’s the responsibility of people in STEM career paths to show students the truth about how exciting these areas are.

“STEM Ambassadors play an important role in encouraging young students to explore the STEM field for themselves so that, one day, there will be a new generation of bright minds developing new ideas.”

Sharing of knowledge and passion of science is important for young people but scientists can get a lot from being a STEM Ambassador too.

From my own personal experience as an Ambassador I know it can be very rewarding and motivating because you take a step back from the intricate details of your complex research project and see your own research as part of the bigger picture.

As well as being a rewarding contribution to the community, outreach and engagement volunteering enhances your personal skills and, if that isn’t persuasive enough – it’s something to add to your CV!

Dr Becky Cook is a Research Information Officer at the ICR.

For more information, visit the STEMNET website or contact Becky Cook, the ICR contact for the STEM Ambassador scheme. British Science Week 2016 is coordinated by the British Science Association and runs from 11-20 March 2016.

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