The STEM Education Project: Giving UK students hands-on experience of scientific research

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Oxford Instruments have recently partaken in a new STEM outreach project, developed to give students hands-on experience of STEM research. Originally conceived by Dr Alex Ball of the Natural History Museum (NHM), London, and Dr James Perkins of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Kent, the project has proved remarkably popular with a diverse range of students across the UK. As an industry leading manufacturer of a broad range of scientific equipment, Oxford Instruments were uniquely positioned to contribute both apparatus and expertise to the project. Research Features was privileged to speak to Managing Director of NanoAnalysis at Oxford Instruments, Christian Lang, and Dr Louise Hughes, Business Manager for the life sciences market.

Oxford Instruments contributed the AZtecLive One Xplore energy dispersive X-ray system, which was used alongside the Hitachi TM4000 scanning electron microscope. Participating schools were invited to formulate their own projects using these devices, meaning students could exercise their creative faculties while honing their scientific technique.

We spoke to Christian and Louise about the remarkably creative uses the students found for these devices. We also spoke of the vital importance of STEM outreach for students, both for inspiring the next generation of researchers and ensuring diverse representation within STEM industries. Oxford Instruments now anticipate the continued success of the project, as new cohorts of students from schools across the UK prepare their applications.

Could you give us an introduction to the history of Oxford Instruments?

Christian: Oxford Instruments is the first commercially successful spin-out company of Oxford University. Originally, Oxford Instruments was set up by Sir Martin Wood and Lady Audrey Wood to commercialise superconducting magnets that were developed in the Department of Physics. Since then, it has developed into a scientific instrumentation company with a specific focus on microscopy and nanotechnology. Oxford Instruments NanoAnalysis makes detectors for electron microscopy, and this is how we got involved in the project, to make electron microscopy accessible to students.

“Schools have been incredibly inventive in how they’ve used the microscope.”

In which areas are the products and services of Oxford Instruments currently being used?

Christian: They are mainly used in academic, scientific, and industrial research. Our core purpose is to support our customers to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges, enabling a greener economy, increased connectivity, improved health, and leaps in scientific understanding. People use Oxford Instruments products to develop new, lighter, and smarter materials for the semiconductor industry, as well as for renewable energy generation and batteries, such as new lithium-ion batteries for energy storage. These are all areas that we have been closely involved with.

Where did the idea for the STEM Education Project originate?

Louise: The project was originally proposed by Dr Alex Ball of the Natural History Museum (NHM) and Dr James Perkins of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Kent. It’s an idea they had been working on for a number of years. They then joined with Hitachi High Technologies America’s Inspire STEM Education Outreach Program, which is what kicked everything off.

Students at the Anthony Gell School in Derbyshire look at results from their microscope surveys. Credit: Alex Hyde.

What exactly does the project involve?

Louise: One of the great things about this project is that it shows when different institutions get together something really special can occur. The project is a brilliant example of collaboration between several institutes. Other collaborative partners include a charity called Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which enables secondary school students to undertake cutting-edge research. IRIS has been crucial as the point of contact for schools that want to partake in this project. Additionally, we partner with the Royal Microscopical Society (RMS), which helps coordinate the programme and organise some of the logistical aspects, such as moving the microscopes between different schools. And then there’s us – Oxford Instruments contributes equipment (as does Hitachi), plus support and training for using that equipment.

Christian Lang, managing director of NanoAnalysis.

There is a group of volunteers who form a mini committee. We assess the applications from the schools and put a plan together for where the instruments are going to go for the next six months or so. The microscopes are usually loaned to different schools for several weeks, but the timeframe varies between schools. The two microscopes are then shipped to different schools. Once they arrive at the school, staff are given support for how to unpack the microscope and set it up. Finally, teachers are given remote training on how to get up and running on the microscopes. Those teachers then train the school students, some of whom become expert users and train other people.

Dr Louise Huges, Business Manager for the life sciences market.

Throughout the loan, the school has support from IRIS and the NHM for the projects they’re running. As part of the microscope loan, they’re also provided with a few bits of sample preparation equipment needed to put samples into the microscope, for example, specimen stubs. Then they do their projects! Some schools do additional outreach projects and some schools link with other schools in the area to remotely access the microscopes. When it’s all done, the microscope is packed up again and collected, ready for the next school. So, it’s quite an involved project for everyone, but it’s proven to be immensely powerful.

When did the project start?

Louise: The project was delayed initially because of lockdown and the logistics surrounding lockdown. It started in 2020 and the initial pilot ran until the summer of 2021. They had the first cohort of schools up until summer last year, and then the new round from September onwards. We’ve just had a load of new applications for next year coming through. So, it’s all very exciting.

Could you explain a little about the AZtecLive One Xplore energy dispersive X-ray system?
Louise: This is a brilliant detector. It is great for the type of microscopes the schools have, which are tabletop electron microscopes; they’re portable, which is ideal. The key point about this detector is the software that it is run through. The software has been deliberately designed to be incredibly easy to use. The interface means you don’t need expert knowledge about energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry, it’s very simple ‘clicks’ to go through a workflow. Very quickly you’ll start getting results. There’s a lot of stuff built into the background to make sure that the users get accurate and meaningful results, without needing to have much knowledge ahead of time. It’s brilliant for exactly this type of application. Students and new users can start getting their results within minutes of the system being turned on. It’s ideal for the environment inside schools with multiple users.

Students were fascinated by the hidden worlds they exposed through the lens of their microscope. Credit: Kate Bellis.

How did the schools use the scanning electron microscopes during the project?

Louise: Schools have been incredibly inventive in how they’ve used the microscope. They’ve run proper research projects via IRIS. One of them has been on ‘how vegan is flour?’ The students were looking for traces of insects, which may have been introduced into the flour during the milling process. Apparently, it’s quite easy to identify insect parts! They have also looked at the chemical composition of particles of dust on plants. So, taking samples of plants from roadsides and looking at what type of materials get deposited on leaves in urban areas. They’ve also undertaken projects looking at adaptations of insects in different environments, such as aquatic environments. They are all projects that don’t require a huge amount of sample preparation (because schools don’t have that equipment) but that are suitable for the high-resolution microscope imaging and the analytical capabilities of our detector.

Schools have also been using these projects to help A-level students achieve CREST Awards. CREST Awards is a scheme designed to help students think and behave like scientists and engineers. As well as being part of the school’s normal curriculum, the schools use these projects to help students apply for these awards. Schools have taken the microscope and run really big outreach events. One of the schools took a microscope to a weekend event and had interactions with over 700 people in one day, which is just incredible! They’ve also been doing cross-disciplinary, collaborative projects: art-science crossover projects, writing about experiences on the microscope, using the images to inspire artworks, or using the microscope to look at art and textiles. Schools have been really inventive in how they’ve used these microscopes. It’s amazing how many students have been able to interact with this technology and engage with STEM subjects – because it’s not just biology and life science, it’s all areas of STEM they’ve been able to experience in this project.

How do you take new cohorts, and what’s the plan for the summer?

Louise: You have to submit a detailed application form and talk about how many students are going to be using it, the duration you want it for and then outline details of the projects. That’s where some of the committee come in, particularly Dr Alex Ball, who then can advise about the suitability of the project. Because a lot of students and teachers who are proposing the projects don’t already have electron microscopy experience, sometimes they’ll suggest a project that just isn’t practical with the microscope, or would need sample preparation techniques than aren’t readily available in a school. So, we give a lot of advice to help schools make the most out of their time with the microscope.

Microscope workshops at Anthony Gell School. Credit: Alex Hyde.

On a six-monthly basis, applications are received, and we then decide how to fit the microscopes in the schools within the school year. Outside of the school year, the microscopes will be involved in outreach events this summer. Details have yet to be confirmed, but the plan is to attend a festival with one of the microscopes. Excitingly, we will have our microscopes available in museums to reach a wide audience of people across the country. We are absolutely committed to this project, it’s fantastic! The results are clear, and I’m sure we will consider other student-focused STEM projects if they are suitable for our business.

“Capturing the imagination of people at that age improves the number of people who go into STEM subjects later in life.”

Christian: Yes, this has been a fantastic success – especially the number of students we manage to reach and get interested in STEM. We also take work experience students every summer, looking for people who want to go into STEM for further studies. As a company, we seek to further education and interest in STEM subjects. We will certainly stay involved and support other similar projects.

The outreach project sounds so exciting. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Louise: I just wanted to add how important this type of STEM work is and what a difference it makes to students. I know of one student who changed their subjects as a result of being able to interact with this microscope. Reports we’ve had from schools are about students who have massively gained confidence, who have become expert users and then taught everybody else how to use these microscopes. It’s just amazing what a difference it makes. Being able to do real science in a school has an impact, and it has an impact on all genders from a young age. We’ve had students interacting with the microscope all the way from primary age to A-Level. Capturing the imagination of people at that age improves the number of people who go into STEM subjects later in life – and that’s so important.

Students were given microscopy advice throughout the project, enabling them to deepen their understanding of the technology. Credit: Alex Hyde.

Christian: Everything Louise says is absolutely right. I just want to add that we see it as our responsibility to make sure that we are inclusive and that our outreach really gets people involved in STEM subjects who might otherwise not be able to. We want a lot more representation in STEM. That’s something I’m very interested in personally – and this is something the project has certainly managed to do.

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