Breaking stereotypes and inspiring future scientists in schools

The Francis Crick Institute is taking the first steps towards better inclusion and diversity in science, starting with children at school.

In a commissioned evaluation of the first five years of The Crick’s Education Outreach Programme (EOP), independent researchers have found that it is already having a positive impact on pupils’ aspirations, confidence and attainment as science learners, particularly for girls.

Anyone can be a scientist

Child's hands using scientific instruments

Established to help improve access to science and scientific careers, the EOP aims to reach every school child in the borough of Camden for every year of their education. Through the delivery of thoughtfully designed workshops and courses that complement national curriculum content, the Crick’s education team provide sight and experience of real-life science and scientists.

The EOP runs in partnership with schools in the London Borough of Camden, which has a very multicultural and diverse community. Many of the borough’s wards are amongst the most deprived in the country, with rates of children being eligible for free school meals being well above average. 

“We want to show children that anyone can be a scientist, enjoy science or work in science,” says Clare Davy, who leads the EOP. “In order to truly improve diversity in science, we need to start with equality in access to science and high-quality education resources, in and out of schools.”

The evaluation, led by researchers at the University of Bristol, found the programme to be a ‘valuable if not essential aspect of support and enrichment for Camden school’s science teaching and learning’. Their report detailed evidence for helping learners forge a connection with science, generating science capital and debunking misassumptions related to what scientists are like.

Richard Watermeyer, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Bristol, said: “The EOP makes a huge contribution to Camden schools and the lives of the borough’s children, their teachers and parents. It has really pulled the Crick into the heart of the local community. But it’s so much more than just about opening up science. It’s about inclusive community building and providing opportunities for everyone in Camden to get engaged with the Crick regardless of their background or ability. This is all down to the dedication of Clare and her inspirational team in building a continuous interface with Camden schools. The EOP is no one-off science intervention. It’s a continuous and deep relationship; an exemplar of how do to science engagement and a model for imitation.”

One of the most positive impact impacts reported was on female pupils’ aspirations as science learners.

Evaluators also noted how the team’s work with children who have special educational needs was an ‘equaliser of opportunity; levelling a field of access for all children to be engaged in science, regardless of socio-economic status and/or physical and cognitive needs.’

Aly Dermody-Palmer, joint head of school at Robson House, a pupil referral unit for primary age children, says the Crick’s outreach days are a highlight of the year.

“There’s a real build-up in advance of visits from the Crick scientists. The children are more engaged and the activities are clearly inspiring a general wonder and curiosity, they ask so many questions. 

“Enrichment activities like this are providing opportunities that some children might not have outside of school. The Crick is part of the local community but the education programme makes it an important part of these children’s lives.”

Supporting teachers

Another important success was the Crick’s influence on cultural and professional change within school communities. The teachers interviewed, welcomed the new directions for engagement with science within their schools.

“We host network meetings for the school science leads so we can make sure we’re supporting teachers where they need it most. Sometimes that might be loaning equipment so they can deliver more practical sessions in their own classrooms, and sometimes it’s sharing best practice from across the network,” adds Clare.

Aly from Robson House notes that the way the Crick scientists teach has helped them introduce key scientific skills into their own lessons. 

“A key part of the curriculum and assessment is about asking the right questions and working scientifically. We have children here who are achieving at an age-appropriate level in science, in a way they don’t achieve in other subjects. There’s something about the way the children learn science and the practical nature of experiments that means it can be a very accessible subject.” 

Inspiring careers in science

“At our school, we ran a project where the students had to pick someone who they might like to be like, someone they might find things in common with. One of the children picked a Crick scientist,” adds Aly.

Closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic meant that interviewing children for the evaluation was a challenge. It was hard to determine the extent to which the EOP is helping change pupils’ future career aspirations. But the Crick team have already introduced new programmes to try and inspire careers in science. 

“Our new programme of secondary school engagement is very careers focussed,” says Clare. “Through the diversity of roles at the Crick, we are able to show children the breadth of career possibilities within science, each suiting people with different skills and interests.”

The Crick’s work experience programme also offers placements to around 100 students every year. Over 50% of students offered placements from the local borough have received free school meals. Data from the scheme shows that selection processes are inclusive and that in particular, Black or Black British students account for a high number of applicants and also have a high success rate.

Increasing reach

set of lab coats on chairs in the learning lab.

A key recommendation of the report was increasing capacity of the programme. The Crick team hope that the EOP model might be taken up by other organisations across the country to deliver similar impact. 

“We keep costs down so that what we deliver can be replicated by others,” says Clare. “Not everyone has the ability to bring children into a working lab like the Crick, but the majority of our programme is delivered in schools and achieved through support for teaching staff.”

“Our team already consult with other organisations, advising on how to provide equitable work experience opportunities, and we hope that as our programme develops, we’ll have much more to share.”

Sam Barrell, the Crick’s deputy CEO, said: “We are so proud of the early success of our Education Outreach Programme and look forward to seeing it go from strength to strength, and also the positive impact it will have on even more schoolchildren.

“Our commitment to increasing diversity in science will require action at all levels and career stages, but inspiring future young scientists is an essential first step, so that a career in science is an aspiration for anyone.”

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