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A taste of uni…a taste for research?

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University of Exeter SUPI session

Lucy Goldring, NCCPE Project Officer for the School-University Partnerships Initiative (SUPI), tells of her recent visit to the University of Exeter to join in a researcher-led workshop for local school pupils.

Imagine you are a 14 year old who’s just chosen your GCSE options (i.e. how you will spend much of your waking life, for the next two years!). You’ve been told to think carefully about where your interests and abilities lie and the career pathways open to you. Maybe your decision was easy – you enjoy and excel in particular subjects (or were steered by what your mates are doing). Perhaps, as an all-rounder, or someone balancing personal likes against parental expectation, you agonised over what to ‘drop’.

At this stage going to university lurks in the outer periphery of most young people’s thoughts. Many – beyond the vague idea of ‘I’ll probably go’ or ‘that’s not really for me’ – haven’t given it huge consideration. As a fourteen year old I was clueless about uni, despite both my parents having benefitted from a higher education. Terms like ‘lectures’ and ‘finals’ were just vague, inaccurate constructs in my head. Even at 17 when people asked me what I would be ‘reading’ I was baffled. A few months later, ploughing determinedly through the sociology set books (how many??), the penny dropped.

How gratifying then to be involved in a programme that gives youngsters the opportunity not only to get a taste of Higher Education (HE), but also to talk to people that have been through university and liked it sufficiently to pursue a PhD, or even a full career in research. Whilst many young people may understand that research takes place in universities, far less have an idea of ‘the what’, ‘the who’ and crucially ‘the why’of this (even less may be aware of the research career pathways available).

The University of Exeter is one of 12 Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) in receipt of Research Councils UK (RCUK) SUPI funding to invest in partnerships with local schools, to develop research activities for pupils. SUPI aims to support the development of more effective school-university relationships, with potential benefits including enriching young people’s experience of the curriculum, equipping researchers with engagement skills and offering CPD opportunities for teachers. As coordinators of the SUPI programme, the NCCPE is working with projects to capture and share the challenges and opportunities of partnership.

One of the SUPI themes being developed at Exeter is ‘Economic Understanding’. Juliette Stephenson (Senior Lecturer in Economics) is the co-lead for this, working closely with economics researchers, the Graduate School of Education and teachers based at the partner schools, to develop a range of sessions to engage year 9 pupils in economic understanding. (find out more about the University of Exeter hosted SUPI here).

I don’t know to what degree pupils attending the economic understanding sessions held on the 9th June fit the picture I painted above, but I do know that the buzz they got from being on campus amongst researchers (and out of school) was palpable. The 49 Year 9ers who participated had all recently elected to pursue Business Studies at GCSE level and the sessions were an opportunity to get a sense of what it would be like to study their subject at a higher level and to meet ‘real life’ business people forging a second career in academia. Pupils also benefitted from hearing some of the latest insights from the field of economic research.

It was refreshing to hear Kyle Alves – an ex-operations specialist and now a PhD student within the Centre for Innovation and Research – say that a lot of research is about admitting, “we don’t know – let’s find out”. He involved the young people in a lego-based simulation of operations logistics. Pupils took on the roles of suppliers, manufacturers, and (very demanding!) customers to explore – in a sense research – the most efficient business models.

Gary Abrahams – once a city trader and now a Practitioner Research Fellow in the Business School – followed this with an interactive lecture on economic behaviour. In his introduction Gary shared with pupils that, on his first day on the job as a trader, his superiors had gifted him with a single piece of advice: "Buy low and sell high and you can’t go wrong" (I sensed mental notes were being made!). He then wowed them by revealing that the transactions he presided were sometimes in units of billions of pounds.

So what aftertaste did this university sampling leave? When Juliette asked what their main impressions of campus were, pupils remarked that it was bigger, more modern, and cleaner than they had imagined, with one girl reasoning that, “students here must have more respect for where they learn”. The interactive feedback session (the young people were furnished with ‘clickers’ and asked a series of questions via a whiteboard) indicated that 92% of pupils had enjoyed their visit. Over two thirds were interested in further exploration of the topics in a follow up school lesson and 84% said the sessions had confirmed their decision to study business studies. 73% of the pupils reported an increased understanding of economics and, interestingly, 78% reflected that the visit had enhanced their understanding of research. This feedback is useful learning for those of us involved in SUPI and, indeed, for any school or university considering the benefits of partnership. More generally I was left wondering how much more ‘savvy’ young people are about their education and career choices these days, compared to my contemporaries and I twenty years ago – discuss!

The contact for the University of Exeter hosted SUPI is Alison Black (a.e.black@exeter.ac.uk)

Follow the links for more information on the SUPI programme and the University of Exeter hosted SUPI.

What do you think? Are 21st century school pupils more aware of what going to university involves? To what degree do you think taking part in research activities inspires a broader selection of young people to consider higher education? Join the discussion by leaving a comment below.

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