Schools Science Conference

The Annual Schools Science Conference was able to move online thanks in part to an SfAM Outreach and Engagement Grant

The annual, multi award-winning Annual Schools Science Conference honoured in 2020 with the Queens Award for Voluntary Service, is usually attended by several hundred school students attending the University of Westminster in person for lectures, workshops and face to face encounters with working scientists. As a result of the Covid pandemic, 2021 marked the first presentation of this event, the 18th fully online. To recognise the global impact of the pandemic, the theme for the 2021 conference was, “Science for the World” recognising that nowhere was untouched and that science and scientists were at the forefront of the testing and vaccine development programmes.

Planning was conducted online via electronic conference calls and represented a significant technical challenge in order to host the various schools, welcome them, run the live and recorded presentations, have link sessions and announce the prize winners. A bonus of this however was that it was possible to have contributions from scientists around the world in line with the theme and enabling the organising group to recruit a highly diverse set of speakers. On the day, despite a good deal of planning and practice there were occasional hiccups however these were addressed rapidly and all sessions ran as planned. Live discussion was also possible as well via the chat function. There were six keynote speakers from within the UK and from around the world and a further twenty scientists leading sessions.

236 school students in years 9-11 from 8 schools attended the Blackboard based event. We wanted to address how the world had responded to the pandemic and how we have learned as a result. We aimed to inspire pupils to study science and hence follow careers in this field, focusing specifically on encouraging girls and underprivileged students.

The Royal College of Pathologists gave a workshop entitled, “Viruses and Vaccines”, a very apt subject given the world context. There were also “Science in Practice” sessions including one on echocardiography given by Barts Health NHS Trust, a live tour of a haematology laboratory and remote training strategies for staff investigating sleep disorders given by Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust and “You are What You Eat” presented by the Chief Dietician from the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

Several schools had taken up the challenge of completing research projects at school or in their extracurricular science clubs. These were mostly delivered as PowerPoint presentations and in one case as a novel animation with some live footage inserted. The subjects of the projects were all very novel and represented considerable research and student input. The outstanding project was awarded The Don Henderson Award which received the Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine trophy and was from the Claremont High School Academy.

There were keynote recorded speeches throughout the day including wildlife scientist Dr Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University in Australia entitled, Whale Snot, Drones and TEAM”. Pinky Mokwena, a MSc student at Tshwane University, South Africa spoke on, “Disciplines and Connections” whilst Mahmoud Tareq Beshir from Ain-Shams University Cairo, a MSc student spoke on the fluidity of science careers today which was also a theme in other talks. Live talks were given by Professor Trudie Lang, Senior Research Scientist in Tropical Medicine at the Nuffield Department of Medicine covering why the world needs health research to solve a pandemic and Dr Sarah Pitt, Principal Lecturer in Microbiology at the University of Brighton with a session entitled, “Going Viral”.

This was a very mixed selection of speakers and subjects who very kindly gave their time to record or present their sessions live and take questions. We were fortunate to have had sponsorship to enable this event to take place as an online event still has significant costs associated with it. At the end of the event, the organising group breathed sighs of relief, thanked speakers and awarded the Don Henderson Trophy. We hope very much that 2022 sees a return to a live event with the immediacy that provides but if not we have proved that we can deliver a lively and successful event on-line.

Some comments from students:

  • It opened my eyes to the world of science, it isn't limited to only being a nurse or doctor.
  • I think the event was very helpful for me to see what it is actually like for a scientist, because I was always interested in science but never knew what it actually consisted of. This has helped me see what is ahead of me if when I take a job in science.
  • I found the even very entertaining and interesting. It was fun learning about new jobs and how you need to be good at a lot of other ones to be able to do just one.

It was great, all of the speakers were extremely interesting and it was a lot of fun and really educational to watch.

A huge thank you to our gold sponsors: A Menarini Farmaceutica Internazionale SRL, C.A. Redfern Charitable Foundation, silver sponsors Great Ormond Street Hospital Science CPD Funding, The Society for Applied Microbiology and the Philip King Charitable Trust plus further sponsors Mast Group and Sysmex.

Sue A