Belfast centre encourages hands-on approach to STEM engagement

7 Mar 2014

Judith Harvey, general manager of W5, Ireland's Science and Discovery Centre in Belfast

W5, Ireland’s Science and Discovery Centre in Belfast, is putting the fun into STEM to get young people engaged and excited, as general manager Judith Harvey tells Claire O’Connell.

When you walk into W5 in Belfast, you don’t have to take too many steps before the kids break loose and dive onto the exhibits. There are liquids to be pumped, simulated planes to be flown, cars to be built, puzzles to be solved and music to be made (including on the musical stairs, a bonus workout). Plus plenty more to discover.

Interactive fun – with science built in

It’s undoubtedly fun, but there’s more to it than that: there’s stealthy science built in, too. While the children are testing their strength they are also learning about the law of the lever, while they are standing in front of a green screen to save goals or read the weather on a monitor, they are learning about digital media and when they get to play with slime they are learning about the properties of non-Newtonian fluids.

That’s because each of the more than 250 exhibits and shows at W5 is designed to encourage an interest in science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) or related areas, explains general manager Judith Harvey.

“It is hands on, and the exhibits are based around STEM and related topics, such as creative media, geography and ICT,” she explains. “And the whole purpose is that it’s not like a traditional museum where you are reading panels and instructions and learning can be passive. Instead this is all about touching, feeling and experiencing. We want to get people curious about how things work, how the world works, what happens around them, to spark that curiosity and get them engaged.”

STEM at school

Given the level of hands-on engagement (and a contained building), W5 is an obvious choice for school visits, and around 35,000-40,000 children from schools on the island of Ireland make the trip each year for workshops and activities, according to Harvey. W5 staff also visit another 20,000-25,000 children in their own schools through the centre’s outreach programme, and again the approach is structured, she explains.

“We have a formal education programme that runs from Nursery and Foundation right through to A-level or Senior Cert. We also link up with teacher training colleges where we encourage teachers in training to move beyond ‘chalk and talk’ to more experiential learning, introducing a more hands-on approach in the classroom,” she says. “We work with teachers to identify topics that they will find helpful to ensure that we are delivering what teachers want and what will benefit their students.”

W5 is also responsible for the STEMNET contract in Northern Ireland, a UK-wide initiative to get young people excited about STEM.

“We are working with more than 1,000 STEM ambassadors – volunteers from business, industry and academia, who talk to young people in school about the role of STEM in their professional careers. They are able to advise how what they learned in school or college translated into the world of work,” says Harvey. “We receive a wide range of requests for support from schools, which can vary from general STEM careers information to more specific requests, for example, exploring an area such as advanced materials. We encourage our ambassadors to present ‘a day in my life’ so that young people get a real understanding of what a career in STEM actually entails.”

Expand horizons

Harvey is keen to emphasise the breadth of STEM careers and she encourages students, teachers and parents to think beyond medicine and careers traditionally associated with science. “We want people to think about the vast array of careers available in the sciences, in engineering, ICT, digital and creative media,” she says. “And we want to make sure they can make decisions about their careers with a good basis of information.”

She recalls a young woman who presented at a recent event run by W5 to highlight local firm Bombardier’s apprenticeship programme for engineers. “She told me afterwards that she had attended a similar event when she was at school, and that she would never have considered engineering as a career until she saw that this was something she could actually do.”

Chemistry to business

Harvey’s own path shows how science can form the foundation for a varied career. She studied chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast and walked immediately into a job in the pharmaceutical industry. “I started out working as a scientist and I ended up working in the sales and marketing department – I took the opportunities that came up,” she recalls. “And if you have a scientific background you can learn business skills along the way. It’s much more difficult if you have a business background or qualification, to retrospectively pick up the science.”

Eventually, family commitments meant she wanted a job with less travel, so she moved to W5. “[It] was the early days of W5, and still relatively a start-up business at that stage, trying to go from that initial enthusiasm and rush of excitement to becoming a sustainable business,” she says. “So the skill set I had from industry really matched up with W5’s requirements. For me it is a place where I can harness my passion for STEM and contribute back into society, which is what W5 does.”

Fresh ideas

One of the biggest challenges W5 faces today is to keep the exhibits and programmes fresh so visitors return and return again, according to Harvey. “We are an educational charity, but we still have to keep the wolf from the door,” she says. “We are constantly trying to look for support and keep our programmes as exciting as we can, but we do get lots of support from different organisations, and the biggest reward is seeing the enjoyment on the faces of visitors and the buzz in the building, that is fantastic.”

W5 is an all-island science and discovery centre at Odyssey, Belfast. For more details, go to its website.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Today, we kick off the campaign’s second year. Let’s change the ratio.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication