‘Inspiring Stories’ with Nick Evans
Associate Professor in Bioengineering
This is part of the Engaged Medicine ‘Inspiring Stories’ blog series. The blogs explore the stories behind outreach and patient-public engagement activities of staff and students from the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine.
Gaffer tape, assorted bits of plastic and electronics, string, Velcro, a team of engineers from Siemens healthcare, and 30-odd 16-year old schoolkids – what could go wrong?
I write this blog having just completed another year of running the Smallpeice Biomedical Engineering course. This annual course aims to inspire school-age students into taking up careers in engineering and biomedical related subjects.
Usually the students come into the uni for 4 days each summer and complete a residential workshop. They find out what biomedical engineers do and how they think. Many students, postdocs and academics work with the students, giving up their valuable time to get involved!
It’s a fun, slightly anarchic adventure with a range of hands on masterclasses and workshops, rounded off with a competition to ‘design and build’ the best device to solve a medical challenge.
Of course, over the past two years the whole thing has been delivered online (shortened to a day and a half). This has brought its own challenges – and opportunities! – but the event is invariably fun, action-packed and enlightening.
I was drawn into this course back in 2013. I had done bits and pieces of public engagement before, but this was really my first proper commitment to it.
Working with 16 year olds is scary for an academic. Most of the time (not always!) the university students we work with are quite grown-up – maturity and discipline shouldn’t be issues. I suppose that the first thing I thought of was that these younger kids might be out of control!!
Having done this now for 9 years I can say hand-on-heart that nothing could be further from the truth. Getting involved has taught me that almost invariably, students who want to engage with you as a scientist are enthusiastic, interested, thoughtful and considerate.
I’ve found that my skills in communication have improved, I’ve felt more like I’m involved in ‘normal’ society rather than, well, a bit institutionalised (yes many academics are weird!), and most of all I’ve had fun. Working with young folk is energising and surprising.
It makes a real impact too. In surveys of attendees between 2014 and 2019 more than half of the attendees said that the course had persuaded them to follow a career in the subject area. And 85% of the students who’d been on the course and who had subsequently did STEM subjects at uni said the course had ‘increased their interest in the subject’. You can’t argue with the stats!
It’s also impacted me. I’ve since got involved with other outreach stuff, including helping exhibit at local and national festivals, contributing to the ‘stem cell mountain’ and now running a podcast, TheScienceShed, with a friend from Cambridge University.
So in summary, and despite the inevitable time it takes, it is thoroughly worth doing it. Dip your toe in the water and before long you’ll be going for a swim!
***Special thanks to Dr Alex Dickinson, Ric Gillams, the Smallpeice team and all of the wonderful PhD students, postdocs and academics who’ve contributed over the years*****
Stay Connected! To find out more about the ‘Inspiring Stories’ series, Faculty of Medicine educational programmes and research, or to get involved use the links below or contact Dr Lucy Green.
University staff or students click here for the Engaged Medicine SharePoint