The Big Idea: STEM, in a day, with the RSA

June 2, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a guest blog from Anne-Marie Imafidon.  Anne-Marie is a Fellow who works in technology at an investment bank and has spent the past 15 months running a social enterprise alongside her main job. She was the UK IT Young Professional of the Year in 2013 and recently won the UnLtd Innovation Award for work on the ‘Stemettes’ which encourages young women to get involved with STEM. She received RSA Catalyst funding in April.

rsa-tourWe’re facing a skills shortage across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries and have what seems like a shrinking minority of females in what is an important industry for our economy. [WISE 2013] 

We’ve helped girls meet a diverse set of women working across a diversity of roles in STEM and in doing so have helped break stereotypes

Many have documented the problems across STEM at all levels and made their recommendations for what should be done (see the Through Both Eyes report). Since its launch in February 2013, the Stemettes project has given positive STEM experiences featuring STEM females ‘Big Stemettes’ to over 1100 girls across the UK with our unique brand of passionate, fun & creative panel events, hackathons, workshops and one exhibition.

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A day in the life of a cheese slice: Fellows driving ambition

February 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes.  But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.

RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School 

Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012.  It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.

Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.

I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:

  • Work with your local schools.  You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships.  Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables.  In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
  • It is hard to involve local business.   Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them.   This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
  • Use your RSA network of local Fellows.  In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event.  A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools.  National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town.  A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school.  And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods.  He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
  • Only do what you feel comfortable doing.  When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough.  But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.

Which brings me to my own learning point.  When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.

Tony Banbury MP speaking at the Driving Ambition launch

We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling.  Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.

This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working.  It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon.  It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact.  Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.

This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.

What next?  Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14.  And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.

All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.

Making sense

October 14, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Education Matters 

Catching up with a summer issue of the New York Review of Books, I was enthralled by Michael Pollan’s article ‘The Food Movement, Rising’ about the new food movement(s) and the intersection with business, government and society.  The article is worth reading in itself, but it was one particular quote, from Janet Flammang’s new book, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society, that struck me most:

“Food is apprehended through the sense of touch, smell and taste, which rank lower on the hierarchy of sense than sight and hearing, which are typically thought to give rise to knowledge.”

Flammang’s book is, of course, about much more than how we experience food, but I am intrigued by the sensory notion she touches on. Of course, Aristotle’s classical hierarchy of the senses is widely accepted (in order: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) but the idea that really only two of our ‘big five’ and our estimated total 9-21 senses are considered on the path to knowledge and reason is peculiar. With so many senses at our disposal, we have historically relied on only sight and hearing to advance our minds.

Based on Fleming’s VARK Model, much of education divides pupils into visual learners or audible learners, based on an increased ability to understand through sight or hearing, respectively. Fleming’s Model also highlights two other types of learning styles: reading/writing-preference learners and kinesthetic (tactile) learners, where the latter relies on touching, moving and doing activities. I am intrigued, however, that despite widely accepted models of various learning styles, the number of senses involved in traditional education is limited. There would seem to be huge untapped potential in thinking more holistically about involving all our senses, perhaps by first limiting some to heighten others and see what happens.

At present, there are very few fields of education, or indeed, jobs that rely more on senses other than sight and hearing. Training to become a chef or a sommelier are perhaps the most obvious, where taste and smell are paramount, followed by sight (I’ve not heard of any sommeliers listening to how a wine pours or sips, but you never know…). And there we return to Flammang’s argument – the sense of smell, touch and taste are generally perceived to be ‘of the body’ and the body tends to symbolise our animal tendencies. Sight and hearing are considered above bodily senses because they represent our ability as civilised beings to be ‘of the mind’.

What if our other senses haven’t played a bigger role in advancing our wisdom not because they really rank lower than sight and hearing, but because we haven’t placed as much emphasis and value on using them?

Those without sight and/or hearing have found countless of ways to understand and grasp concepts and the world around them. Braille relies on the sense of touch in lieu of sight and sign language relies on sight in lieu of hearing, but there must be more than just these… Surely we haven’t unearthed all ways of communicating and learning to date? What if a newly conceived version of Braille didn’t just allow the blind to read words and language, but it displayed entire concepts through sensory maps and diagrams?

So what if Aristotle was wrong? (Oh no, did I really just say that?) What if our other senses haven’t played a bigger role in advancing our wisdom not because they really rank lower than sight and hearing, but because we haven’t placed as much emphasis and value on using them? We know that sensory deprivation of one sense can lead to a heightened awareness and understanding through the other senses, so what would happen if we put more effort into using our sense of smell, taste, touch, time, balance, temperature, et al and learning through them?

It would seem that there is a huge opportunity here for an intersection between design, which already relies heavily on an increased understanding of all the senses, education, biology, psychology and a number of other fields. By just thinking about how we could design new ways of learning a range of subjects and concepts through senses other than just sight and hearing, we will open up a range of possibilities for greater human understanding and wisdom.

I personally have done some design work on translating visual concepts into tangible, tactile ones, but I want to go further. Can we learn philosophy through smell? Can we learn a language through touch? Can we learn mathematics through balance? Perhaps not, but I think there is something there… For example, it doesn’t seem so revolutionary to think that we might be able to learn geometry through touch, biology though temperature, or even geography through direction…