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Why AstraZeneca and MedImmune want to inspire the next generation of scientists through the Energy Challenge

Jane Osbourn of AstraZeneca

By Jane Osbourn, Cambridge Site Leader and Vice President of R&D, MedImmune

AstraZeneca and MedImmune have long been passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists through support for, and engagement with, science education in our local communities.

As a major Cambridgeshire employer and, building on our extensive involvement in STEM initiatives in Cambridge, we have launched the Energy Challenge, a competition for primary schools throughout the county. It is the largest community-focused STEM initiative that we have undertaken, and we are really excited to see how enthusiastically the children are engaging with it.  

The Energy Challenge encourages creativity, investigation and discovery, all of which form the basis for scientific learning, and which can be key skills for pursuing further study or a career in STEM.  

All participating schools have been given a mechanical balance in order to run their Energy Challenge experiments. Using the mechanical balances, students are scientifically exploring concepts such as energy density in different foods and are learning how to use scientific scales to measure a range of weights generated from their calculations. As the Energy Challenge is focussed on food and energy, in the form of kilojoules, there is a direct connection to every- day life and the foods that the children are eating. It’s about having fun, whilst working scientifically.

Key to the successfully delivery of a science competition on such a large scale is the involvement of nearly 100 employees who have volunteered their time to be an Energy Challenge mentor.  Each mentor is guiding their assigned school through the Challenge, offering expertise and support to students and teachers as they work to prepare their Energy Challenge poster submission.

First visits by AstraZeneca and MedImmune mentors have already taken place, and their impact was summed up beautifully by a Year 5 pupil from Robert Askell Primary School who said: “I don’t normally enjoy science, but this was good because it was real, with real scientists!”.

Which just goes to show the importance of initiatives like the Energy Challenge and the difference which can be made by companies and organisations, when they invest in future generations who will be the scientists of tomorrow.

Why use a mechanical balance to promote STEM subjects in Primary Schools?

John Elvin AstraZeneca

By John Elvin, Scientific External Liaison at MedImmune

There are several reasons why we chose a mechanical balance as the piece of equipment that is key to the Energy Challenge.

The most obvious one is that a balance is a useful tool in a whole range of scientific experiments. You can use the triple beam balance to weigh from a few grams to two and a half kilograms and, with the tare bar, also use various shaped containers to weigh fluids and powders as well as regular and irregular shaped solids. This flexibility allows investigation into the properties of matter and the combinations of ingredients in correct proportion for a recipe, as well as weighing different foods.

With a balance, you can answer questions such as: “How much does an apple weigh? Or a pencil? Or a smartphone? Or a whole host of other questions.

However, this would also have been possible with a digital balance.  The great thing about a mechanical balance is that it is obvious how it works. The weight on the pan must equal that of the movable weights on the three arms for the arm to be level and the smallest difference is magnified as a movement away from level.

In addition, the way the balance is set out in “hundreds” “tens” and “units” is very mathematical. You can demonstrate the concept of an equation with a balance. Whatever you do to one side of the fulcrum you must do to the other to keep the two sides equal.

A mechanical balance has a physicality about it. So much in science these days is digital or on a screen or virtual. The solid reality of the metal and the tactile nature combines sight, sound and touch to give a multi-sensory experience – linking the two human specialties of hands and brains. This gives a much stronger learning experience than just seeing figures on a digital screen.

And a final benefit is that, with a mechanical balance, there is no need to replace any batteries! Properly treated the balance should last a lifetime.

So, to conclude we chose a mechanical balance to encourage interest in STEM as it is in itself a great example of what the subjects of science, engineering, technology, and maths can produce as well as being a long-lasting multifunctional tool.

I am not a scientist

Trumpington Meadows

By Dr Sabine Jaccaud, Director of Communications, AstraZeneca Cambridge 

I have spent a lot of time in education and research but would definitely not call myself a scientist, in the way someone working in a lab would do. As one of AstraZeneca’s Energy Challenge mentors, this point of view has allowed me to experience this volunteering role through the lens I have built in over two decades working in communications, with very diverse teams.

Doing a challenge like this one, and as a primary school pupil, involves forming quickly as a team, getting organised, understanding the assignment, agreeing a shared method and goal , and behaving with each other in the best possible way to achieve an outcome, all within a competitive environment. What I particularly enjoy as a mentor is the mirror this holds up to us, as seasoned professionals, and the fresh insights we gain into interpersonal dynamics.

It’s easy to focus on the product, the outcome: an experiment result, a poster, a presentation. I think it’s how we get there that has most of the learning.
The class teachers and science teachers who have welcomed us into their schools are amazing and have given us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a learning experience that is mutual. We bring an activity to the classroom, in the form of the Energy Challenge, and we bring our time as mentors. What we get is the joy of seeing young people engage with something new, find their voice and individual ways of contributing, and also an opportunity to confirm that the process is as important as the product.

The ability to present results to people you don’t know, underpinned by rigour, curiosity and respect, are key to completing a scientific challenge like this one successfully. They are also life skills for us all, whether we are scientists or not.

I now know that so many of us can contribute usefully to STEM activities, if we are clear on what we bring and always look sideways to the hidden learning in a task.


We can foster children’s curiosity and guide them


By Dr. Jo Montgomery, Dr. Jo Science Solutions

I am excited to be involved as a judge in Astra Zeneca’s Energy Challenge. As an academic research scientist and qualified teacher who has also spent time working in industry, I have long held a foot in both the science and education camps. I have seen what is needed in terms of scientists in the workplace, as well as the challenges of delivering this at the coalface of education.

I am passionate about inspiring young people to enjoy science and STEM, to be curious about the world and to discover more about STEM careers. I deliver hands-on, fun and engaging science workshops in primary schools to enrich the curriculum, so I am delighted that AstraZeneca is focusing the Energy Challenge at children in years 5 and 6.

Research suggests that ideas about subjects and careers are formed before children leave primary schools, so it is imperative we provide as many experiences as possible to engage and inspire children about the wider world, increase science capital, and promote scientific literacy.

Science impacts us all, from the natural world to the technology in your smart phone. We need people who can understand how these things work and can develop new ideas, but we also need a society that values these things and which can evaluate evidence to engage in informed discussion and debate.

By working together to inspire the next generation, we can foster children’s curiosity and guide them. They already have the skills to ask questions and find things out: children are amazing. I expect to be greatly impressed with the standard of entries in this competition.