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Why AstraZeneca wants 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, AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca has 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 has 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.

Opening a window into a rewarding career

Anne Bailey portrait image

When Astra Zeneca invited me to help judge the Energy Challenge I leapt at the chance. Offering schools the chance to take part in activities like this is so important: giving students the chance to meet people working at Astra Zeneca, learn more about what they do, and have the chance to connect what they’re learning at school with activities from ‘the real world’ can make a profound difference to the children’s ideas for their own future career.

Starting our interventions early, in primary school, is essential as prejudices and biases take hold very early on. Research tells us that children as young as six have already started to buy into outdated stereotypes. Challenging the idea of what it means to be a scientist, whether it’s only for the super brainy kids or ‘nerds’, that it’s only for boys, or even gaining the knowledge that careers in science exist at all is extremely important. It’s particularly important in the Cambridge region where we have such an exciting range of companies working in life sciences, healthcare and MedTech.

Companies are already worried about a ‘skills gap’ so we know we must do more to attract people into these fields. It’s also important to open a window into a career that could be rewarding in so many ways. My company, Form the Future, exists to do just that: connect young people with a world of career opportunities, inspire them to dream big and empower them to fulfil their potential. We run activities where students need to guess the career of different visiting professionals. It’s always a delight to see the wonder on their faces when they meet a female astronaut or a male nurse. But additionally, it’s also great when they get the chance to have a go at the science and technology themselves. I will never forget a young girl from the Abbey ward in Cambridge, where the median income level is far below average in Cambridge and career expectations can be very low, taking part in a coding activity for the first time. When she managed to programme her RaspberryPi to make her doorbell ring she was amazed – and her ideas of what she might be able to do in the future was changed forever.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the students gain from the Energy Challenge and hope that some may be resetting their own career aspirations as a result.

In fact, getting students to work out ideas themselves, with the right prompting from the teacher should underpin good practical work. Learning through inquiry in this way gives students real ownership of their learning, and gives them the experience of being scientists.

Anne Bailey, CEO, Form the Future CIC

Learning through practical work and inquiry, Dr Mark Winterbottom

Learning through practical work

To complete the Energy Challenge, students must do practical work. But why is practical work important?

Well first, it’s a part and parcel of what most scientists do – whether you’re a chemist, biologist or a physicist. If students know what scientists do, they may get much more of a sense whether ‘science is for me’. In fact, doing practical work may even give them that sense.

So, what types of practical work can achieve that? First, let’s think about teacher demonstrations. If they involve surprise, whizzes or bangs, they can have an immediate effect on students’ interest. The ‘wow’ or ‘pretty cool’ responses are always good to hear in a classroom. But real satisfaction comes from real motivation and real learning.

To try to achieve that, recent research on practical work, provides a framework for teachers to think about learning in their planning. It asks teachers to think about what they expect students to do, and what they expect them to see. This is the easy bit. It also asks them to think about what they expect students to learn about (the concepts) and what they expect students to learn how to do (the process).

For example, a teacher can plan a practical activity where students count the number of bubbles given off by pond weed at different distances from a lamp. It’s easy to get students to set the activity up, and to count the bubbles. But that’s not enough for conceptual learning. The teacher needs to think about the right questions, to get the students to think about what their results mean, developing ideas about photosynthesis in the process.

In fact, getting students to work out ideas themselves, with the right prompting from the teacher should underpin good practical work. Learning through inquiry in this way gives students real ownership of their learning, and gives them the experience of being scientists.

But what about motivation? One of the most important motivational theories – self-determination theory – suggests that students need to feel autonomous, competent, and a sense of connection or relatedness to others. By asking students to build their learning through inquiry, they develop that sense of autonomy. By undertaking practical work in groups, they build that sense of relatedness. And by focusing on procedural and conceptual learning, they build the sense of competence. All of this combined effectively makes it more likely students will ultimately decide that ‘science is for me’.

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

John Elvin AstraZeneca

By John Elvin, Scientific External Liaison at AstraZeneca

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.