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Path of discovery: North West science centres’ potential to boost STEM industries

Path of discovery: North West science centres’ potential to boost STEM industries

The government recently issued a £13 million funding boost to help UK science centres connect with new audiences, and the North West attracted the lion’s share of the cash.

Move Commercial explores the true potential of these facilities to boost STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, and the role they play in strengthening future talent for the region’s industries.

Words by Natasha Young 

A £3 million portion of the Inspiring Science Fund was hailed a “major step forward” for Wirral’s Eureka! Mersey attraction when it was announced in August.

The forthcoming £11m centre, set to transform Merseytravel’s Spaceport in Wirral, was one of two fund recipients in the Liverpool City Region, alongside Widnes-based Catalyst.

Whilst the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) cash will be instrumental in developing the Eureka! brand’s second UK visitor centre, charitable trust Catalyst plans to spend its £754,600 share on a project to “inspire a future generation of scientists across the North West and beyond”.

For Catalyst, which was established in 1987 and focuses on science and technology behind the chemicals industry, its vision to engage with the local community and refurbish exhibition spaces including its hands-on scientific gallery will only enhance its existing work to bridge the gap between education and industry and enhance STEM talent.

“There’s a concept called ‘science capital’, and the definition is how much science awareness we have,” explains Catalyst director Jayne Edwards. “That depends on your family, friends, neighbours and people your parents work with.

“Catalyst is one of the ways we reach out to disadvantaged and deprived areas, and it’s in the 27th most deprived borough in the whole country so we aim to increase the science capital of those children who need it most.

“I was one of those – I grew up in a deprived area of East London and didn’t have any science family, my parents didn’t go to university. For people like that it’s instrumental, it can be transformational.”

Catalyst develops children’s science capital and, in turn, helps inspire them towards careers in North West STEM industries through initiatives such as Chemistry at Work Week, which sees employers talk to schoolchildren at the centre, and by working to “dispel the myths” around the jobs that are available.

“There’s a lot of misconception out there that to work in science or industry you have to wear a boiler suit with an oily rag and it’s so far from the truth,” adds Edwards.

“Some of the employers we work with sponsor visits to Catalyst from local schools. A lot of them like to sponsor schools in their locality and that way they can discharge their corporate social responsibility, and sometimes it’s very difficult [for industry companies] to have school visits because they’re quite dangerous places so Catalyst does that job on their behalf.

“They also get involved in sponsoring exhibits and exhibitions at Catalyst and they have come with their own team building days and to have some of their meetings.”

In Wirral, Eureka! Mersey may not be due to open until spring 2021 but work is well underway to forge similarly strong links with schools and a broad range of the area’s STEM businesses.

“As part of recent feasibility work we met with key industry partners there like Ørsted, Unilever, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Cammel Laird and Jaguar Land Rover,” says Leigh-Anne Stradeski, chief executive of Eureka! which already operates a children’s museum in Halifax.

“We’ve made connections with all of them and we’re running a co-creation process in terms of developing the content for the visitor attraction, so we’re consulting with children from secondary schools, primary schools, youth groups like Hive in Wirral and the Alder Hey Children’s Group.

“We’re connecting children with the industry partners and getting them together to help develop the content so there’ll be really strong connections across the board.”

We’re excited to have the opportunity to have Eureka! Mersey so close to home to inspire the next generation of leaders”.

One Wirral education provider which has been putting ideas forward for the attraction is The Mosslands School, which has previously taken students to the existing Eureka! centre and is optimistic about the impact the Mersey venue could have.

“Mosslands believes engaging students in STEM subjects in a less rigid structure than that found in the classroom provides excellent opportunities to truly inspire young people,” says the school’s STEM coordinator, Mike Lam. “Eureka! Mersey will bring exciting, novel and fun ways to explore STEM careers.

“The fantastic experiences we have had from attending Eureka! has improved performance in our students, allowing them to feel positive about their own involvement in STEM subjects.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to have Eureka! Mersey so close to home to further inspire the next generation of leaders.”

As Eureka!’s vision for its interactive Liverpool City Region centre, also featuring workshop spaces, a shop, a café and an outdoor science park, makes progress Stradeski is adamant the attraction will be tailored to the location’s needs rather than a North West version of its original museum.

“We are looking at key themes that are driving growth in the Liverpool City Region, like life sciences and health, advanced manufacturing, low-carbon technology, digital creativity and innovation,” she says.

“We’re matching up the needs the industry has reflected to us with what will actually engage children in the STEM subjects, and that’s the process we’re in the early stages of now.

“We want to actually have the scientists, engineers and people who are working in STEM careers come in for a direct experience with the children so it’s honest and face to face, which will really engage children and enlighten them as to what some of those opportunities are.”

Wirral Council’s leader, Councillor Phil Davies agrees this tailored approach is “vital” for the Liverpool City Region to get the best out of having the facility on the doorstep, and believes it can make a difference at various stages of children’s education.

“While Eureka! Mersey will be a place for young children too, we’ll make sure it appeals to an extended age range to engage and inspire young people who are making GCSE options decisions that will influence their future career choices,” he says.

According to Ørsted, which operates the Burbo Bank Offshore Windfarm, the ‘fun’ element of such science-focused visitor attractions can be key to inspiring future talent.

“It’s important that we highlight to children from a young age how fun, exciting and inspiring STEM subjects can be and that’s why the Eureka! Mersey attraction is such a great initiative,” says Natasha Nanuck, the firm’s senior stakeholder advisor. “STEM skills are also vital for a growing number of jobs in the North West.

“We’re absolutely committed to raising awareness of STEM and helping young people access the many exciting roles available in renewable energy.”

Unilever also uses various initiatives and works with schools across the North West to invest in the next generation of scientists and engineers as it puts innovation at the heart of its growth ambitions.

“We want to inspire and motivate young people to pursue STEM careers and highlight the exciting range of opportunities available to them as well as the impact they can make through science, technology and innovation,” says Cameron Jones, site director at Unilever’s Port Sunlight base.

“We’re delighted with Eureka!’s focus on STEM skills which will give young people the opportunity to explore and engage with science in a real world context.

“This aligns well with Unilever’s ambitions and will enhance the work we’re already doing in this area, and we look forward to exploring opportunities for how we might work together in the future to help further boost STEM skills Science centres Focus in the region.”

Elsewhere in the North West the Science Museum Group, which operates Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum (MSI), has a growing number of Greater Manchester volunteers signed up to its STEM Ambassador Hub, which aims to engage young people in STEM subjects.

“[The volunteers] represent a wide range of different employers, from small digital start-ups to multinational engineering companies,” says Rosie Mawdsley, MSI’s STEM Ambassador Hub manager. “Our ambassadors help to showcase the variety of STEM jobs available locally and also, very importantly, the different pathways into them (such as apprenticeships) and the skills needed to do them.”

Key growth sectors identified in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s (GMCA) ‘Work & Skills Strategy and Priorities’, such as digital and construction, provide a focus for the museum’s STEM Ambassador Hub when it comes to supporting employers’ STEM engagement initiatives.

“There is growing awareness that it’s really important as a future investment to help younger pupils explore what STEM employers are working on in their own local areas, along with challenging perceptions about what these jobs are and who can do them,” adds Mawdsley.