Helen Jones - asturias4steam Interview banner

By @ivandiego

Asturias4STEAM  seeks to generate interest in STEM among younger people in Asturias, a region located in the NW of Spain.  raise aspirations to pursue professional careers in STEM and equip them with a set of useful competences for their personal and professional life. Our blog showcases the work of STE(A)M teachers in Asturias region  as well as  other STEM  experiences, initiatives and education research across Europe. In2ScienceUK is the latest initiative showcased in our website and social media.

Founded in 2010 by Dr. Rebecca McKelvey, In2scienceUK aims to provide young people from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to gain practical insight into the STEM sector as well as the knowledge and confidence to progress to university. In 2019, in2scienceUK has worked with 197 volunteers to find 384 young people inspiring STEM placements across over 100 STEM departments. To dig a bit deeper, we talked to Helen Jones, Head of Programmes.

Thanks for your time, Helen. How did you get involved in In2Science?

I did a biology degree so I have a background in science already but after that I worked for lots of different organizations mostly related to STEM. My recent job before this was more into career development. Throughout that time the issue of diversity of the STEM workforce was a huge topic of conversation. How do you make this workforce more diverse and more reflective of the UK as a whole because obvioulsy it is not.

So IN2SCIENCEUK is working towards that goal: increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce?

We aim to support students that come from disadvantaged backgrounds and get places in STEM degrees and apprenticeships and ultimately into STEM careers. My role in IN2SCIENCE is looking at the pipeline of  people going to STEM degrees and apprenticeships because you can´t solve that problem higher up. That’s what attracted me to the role. I’m Head of programmes and I also look after impact.  We are quite keen ensuring we collect data about the programme to show it has value for students and it’s doing what we’re aiming to do.

Social class or family background is taken out of the picture and STEM initiatives tend to focus on an alleged lack of aspiration. Is that the problem?

I don´t think it is a lack of aspiration. There are lots of really bright students out there who are interested in science but just don´t know what the process is. Raising aspirations is important but what we’re doing is taking students who have the aspiration and want to have a career in STEM and give them the support to get there. We work with 17 year old students who are taking STEM A-Levels. They are already on the STEM pathway but they need that extra support to get them over those barriers.

Which are the main barriers for people from disadvantaged backgrounds in STEM?

There are barriers to Higher Education in any degree for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Full stop. But with science and STEM-related degrees not having the knowledge of the career opportunities available or the range of degrees is an additional barrier.  If you’re good at science at school the careers’ advice is probably medicine or nursing, very traditional. So if you do not have the understanding of the availability of different types of careers and STEM degrees that is automatically a barrier to you.

But that’s not the only barrier.

If you come from a low-income background, there are other barriers. It is well known that if you have parents who have contacts you are more likely to get things like work experiences and opportunities to understand a bit more about STEM environments. And when you are talking about the personal statements to get into university having work experience is seen as a positive extra in your application so you are more likely to get that place rather than someone who has a experience of science in school.

How does it work? How do you initially reach students?

We work a lot with schools. We contact teachers, the Head of 6thForm, to identify those students and encourage them to apply. We have an open application process. Any student that meets our eligibility criteria can apply.

And the eligibility criteria are…

Our students need to be in year 12 (16-17 years old) and attend a state-funded school. They need to be taking at least one STEM-related subject. We do also consider if they receive Free School Meals or if they have parents that don´t have a Higher Education qualification or if they have an educational healthcare plan because they have special educational needs . And finally it is where they live. If they come from a region or postcode area that has low number of students going into Higher Education.

Each year In2scienceUK receives over 2,000 applications from students interested in getting hands-on STEM experience working alongside researchers and industry professionals over the summer.  Is it possible to secure a placement for all of these students? What’s the selection process?

We do interviews with each individual student to understand their motivations and what they want to get from the programme. So we can find out and dig deeper which areas of science they may be interested in.That really helps us with the mactching process with hosts.  Yes, the interview is really helpful for us in terms of who gets offered a place because unfortunately we cannot offer a place to everyone who applies, we’re always oversuscribed.

So the interview is about getting a fuller picture of each applicant.

Yes, and we also check if they have got any particular needs.  This was particularly important this year because everything was online. So we need to check if they have access to a laptop, to wi-fi so that we could support that if they didn´t.

What comes next?

Following the interview process anyone who gets offered a place gets invited to an induction event. We talk them about the programme, how they can get the most out of it, the support available and introduce them to the staff.  As part of the confirmation we ask them to do a pre-placement survey. We survey them before and after the programme and look at the change. That’s a really useful and important tool for us.

Is matching done on demand? Do you always find the right match for the right person?

Not all our matches are perfect. We have to manage expectations on both sides. Letting hosts know they are not going to neccesarily get someone who’s super interested in their very niche research. But also with the students when we interview them. If a lot are interested in Medicine and they would like to have a work experience in a  hospital, we would say we don´t have that many placements in hospitals but suggest how would they feel about being paired with someone who’s working on a specific disease or Biomedicine. So it’s kind of having a discussion and see if that would work for them. And normally it does. It is kind of opening their eyes and exposing them to different opportunities

You mentioned place of residence is an eligibility criteria but it might not always be easy to find hosting organizations not too far from the places where they live?

When we’re looking at matching physical placements we ensure it is within one-hour commute from their home. But we also provide a travel and lunch bursary. But yes, with that model we are restricted. This year the model moved entirely online and it has opened up some potential opportunities so now we reach students who are slightly  further afield and in more rural deprived areas.

What does a typical placement look like?

In a normal scenario we would match students with STEM professionals working in either Universities or Industry and they would spend two weeks with their host during the summer. The placement is focused on work experience but also on increasing social capital, really getting to know what it might be like to work in a STEM environment.

In a previous interview, we explored the different dimensions of science capital with Louise Archer and she underlined the relational aspect, who you know in science. 

It is important to increase their science capital both in terms of knowledge about science but also their social capital increasing their confidence in speaking to professionals, in introducing themselves, in asking questions. So besides gaining experience in the lab, they read papers and talk to other people in the workplace. So in a University setting someone from Admissions may come to talk to students. As I said, it’s not just all lab work but also getting familiar with the environment.

Do students receive any additional support during the placement?

Over the summer we also run a series of workshops for students  about employability skills,  confidence-builiding, career advice, admissions and application processes. They are not mandatory but a lot of students find them useful. And we also run career panels. We bring people with different  jobs in STEM and in different areas so they can talk about what they do and students can ask questions.

At times, careers advice conveys a simplified vision of school-to-work transitions in STEM.  Role models tend to be that brilliant person with a straightforward pathway to career sucess.  Is this the right thing to do?

It’s a very big misconception for some students that you have to know what you want to do and there’s  only one pathway to get there.  I love hearing people’s career stories and most people have a bit of a wiggly career path. Very few people have a clear goal and take a straight line to it. Just exposing people to those kinds of stories is really powerful. Just because you pick something doesn´t mean that’s what it has to be forever.  I did a STEM degree and I’m not a researcher. But that’s not a failure, it is a completely valid success story. We do encourage our volunteers to talk about their own journeys. To say how they got where they are and also to talk about the vulnerabilities, the times they felt unsure, or when they changed directions.

In 2019, in2scienceUK has worked with 197 volunteers to find 384 young people inspiring STEM placements across over 100 STEM departments.  These are impressive figures but what’s in it for volunteers?

One of the main things is giving back. A lot of people have gone through their career and they feel that there’s a benefit in making sure the STEM sector is diverse. I think they volunteer because they enjoy engaging with students who are interested.

What are their main concerns?

When it’s traditional placements is keeping students engaged for the two weeks. So the initial training is basically talking to hosts how to keep students engaged and really managing their expectations in what these students are like.  It takes time to develop these relationships with students. As a researcher you may feel it a bit demotivating if you are feeling that students are not asking many questions but we help them to understand that the placement experience is having an impact on the students anyway.

Work placements have been severely disrupted by COVID-19.  Going online was the only choice available but the practical element of lab work may be lost in that transition.  How did you cope with it?

It’s a compromise I think. This summer the programme ran exclusively online because there was no other option and actually it worked very well. Students were engaged and their comments are that they found it very interesting and it actually gave them a much broader sense of STEM. If you are just working with one host in one particular field you get a great inmersive experience in that but that’s it  whereas we were able to expose students to a much greater range of fields within an area that they were interested in.  Researchers co-developed modules on their research and a webinar but they also set a pre-reading and a task. So students were not in a lab but they were getting an experience of research at home analyzing data, designing experiments.

In2scienceUK places a strong emphasis on measuring the impact that STEM placement programmes have on your students.. What are the most promising impacts observed?

Students who have been on our programme are more likely than the average population to get to university and they are more likely to go to a top tier university. But also we see great changes in their science capital. Those are the main impacts but a really great thing is our alumni.  So once people have been in the programme they would often get back to us and say they’d really like to help. That’s a really great impact.

What’s next for IN2SCIENCEUK?

We went online this year and that has gone really well. So we’re starting to discuss whether we continue online, whether we need to change bits of our programme because the online really helps us reach students. So we got some questions that we need to work on. We’re currently working in specific regions depending on the fundign we ar getting so for us a big area to look at is growth so kind of growing in different areas of the UK.

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