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Careers With Plants Day

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This case study outlines the planning and evaluation of a plant science and horticulture careers day aimed at Year 9 pupils. The project was organised in partnership between the Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

  • Lead organisations
    • University of Cambridge: Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University Botanic Garden

  • Project summary
    • The Careers with Plants Day brought together 60 teenagers and 40 volunteers for a day of workshops, tours and discussions, giving pupils an insight into a variety of jobs. From science to horticulture, the linking theme between the careers was a connection to plants.

      The event was held jointly between the Sainsbury Lab, Cambridge, and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Students spent time in both the Lab and the Garden, and met people working at both.

      This was part of a broader project to inspire teenagers about plant science, run by the Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme. Encouraging young people to consider careers in science and in horticulture is seen as valuable both to the young people themselves, and to the wider UK society and economy.

      All the students agreed that they had learnt more about the range of careers available to them with plants. As one pupil put it, “I learnt that plants aren't just to look and smell at”.

  • Project aims
    • Our aim was simple: to show young people that there is a wide range of fulfilling careers available working with plants, from horticulture to bench-based research. Each activity – workshops, tours and ‘careers speed dating’ - was designed to combine an engaging activity with an insight into the daily activities carried out by people in different roles.

  • Audience
    • The event was targeted at Year 9 pupils from local state schools.

      We had originally planned to run a careers event for A-level students. However, our research showed that career interests are formed surprisingly early in pupils’ secondary careers, and that working with A-level students might be too late. Practicalities encouraged us to avoid pupils in their GCSE years, since Yr 11 pupils would no longer be attending school after exams, and many local schools would prefer not to take Yr 10 pupils out of school.

      Local state schools were invited to bring a group of up to 10 Year 9 pupils. One school asked to bring a mixture of Year 9 and gifted and talented Year 8 pupils, and we were happy to accommodate this.

      Science teachers and technicians were also encouraged to attend with their pupils, with a targeted workshop on plant science in the secondary classroom organised for them.

  • How it started
    • The Careers Day was part of a broader programme engaging teenagers with plant science at the Sainsbury Lab and Cambridge Botanic Garden. There was a strong enthusiasm for introducing young people to the range of careers available with plants and science.

      The East of England is particularly strong in plant science and agriculture, with organisations such as the John Innes Centre, NIAB and the both Cambridge and Norwich Sainsbury Labs based in the region.

      There has been a concern over the low numbers of young people going into a career in horticulture over the past five years. A programme, Grow Careers, was set up to encourage more pupils to consider careers with plants. There were particular concerns that people did not see horticulture as a profession that required skill and knowledge. Equally, encouraging young people to consider STEM careers has been an ongoing concern in the UK. As a research lab set within a botanic garden, we felt we were ideally placed to tackle these issues.

      We carried out a good deal of research into what type of event would be most effective with young people, including attending and contributing to careers events run by other organisations.

  • Partnerships
    • We were fortunate to have the support of two key organisations in putting together our workshops.

      The science education specialist at Rothamsted Research, a publicly-funded plant science research institute, planned and ran a workshop on ‘high-tech gadgets in agriculture’. This involved the participation of several Rothamsted scientists. While we had had friendly relations with colleagues at Rothamsted for a while, this was the first time that we had had the opportunity to collaborate with them on a joint event.

      The Royal Horticultural Society is a key organisation in the field of UK horticulture, and as such the education team at the Botanic Garden had long-standing relationships with their education team. They were particularly supportive of the aims of the event, and contributed to a join workshop. We particularly appreciated the energy and enthusiasm of two RHS apprentices who were rather nearer in age to the pupils than the education team. We have since continued to collaborate on workshops at careers events for this age group. 

  • What did you do?
    • 60 Year 9 pupils from state secondary schools in the region were invited to attend a one day event hosted at the Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge Botanic Garden. Each school could bring up to 10 pupils.

      The day began with a welcome from the Director of the Garden, followed by ‘Career Speed Dating’, in which small groups of pupils tried to guess the jobs done by staff members.

      This was followed by two workshop sessions and a tour of either the Lab or the Garden. Pupils were randomly allocated to two of the four workshops, which focused on horticulture, agriculture and lab-based plant science. We aimed for each pupil to do one lab-based activity and one land-based activity. Students were then taken on a themed tour by members of staff, who talked about their work and answered questions.

      The day concluded with a talk by the Director of the Lab. During the day, a professional photographer took pictures of the students. These were combined into a presentation which was shown at the close of the event, to remind students of all they’d done.

      Teachers attended a targeted workshop of their own during the first session, and then joined their pupils for the second workshop and tour.

  • Evaluation
    • We asked pupils for short feedback at the end of the day, with 5 short questions. These asked them to tell us one thing they had learnt over the course of the day, one thing they had enjoyed, and one thing we could improve. We also asked them to rate whether it had helped them find out more about careers with plants, and to what extent it had made them more interested in working in a career with plants. Pupils all felt they had learned either a lot or a little about careers with plants. Levels of enthusiasm for a career with plants were variable, with 17 of 56 feeling ‘a lot’ more interested, and 26 of 56 feeling ‘a little’ more interested.

      We asked teachers and lab technicians attending to give us their feedback on the day. As professional educators, they had some very valuable feedback on appealing to the target audience. In particular, they recommended that workshop leaders include a greater range of activities within each session, and alternate talking with practical work.

      We also asked all the workshop leaders and volunteers to give their feedback.

      We are using this feedback to adjust next year’s session.

  • Key lessons learnt
    • Recruiting schools to take part was an extremely time-consuming process. There was a tendency for invitations to get lost in the mass of emails, letters and phone calls arriving on teachers’ desks.  We had been prepared for this, and allocated plenty of time. We anticipate that recruitment will be much easier in subsequent years, as all schools asked to attend again.

      We were not sufficiently clear with teachers as to the intended audience. Some had brought gifted and talented students, while others felt it would be a valuable opportunity to inspire students with additional needs.

      Some of our workshop leaders had not previously worked with this age group, and were surprised by the difference between teaching A-level students and teaching Year 8 and 9 students. The mixed-ability groupings made this a harder job, but our volunteers reacted with impressive enthusiasm. We hope to pair scientists with experienced teachers to plan and run future workshops.

      Not all students toured both the Lab and the Garden, and (perhaps given the exceptionally sunny weather) they felt this was a disappointment. We plan to ensure all students see both areas in subsequent years.

  • Keys to making it work
    • The Careers Day was a major undertaking for the Programme, and took up around 1 ½ days per week of a staff member’s time to research, recruit for and organise. We were extremely fortunate to have the dedicated time available for this, and hope that others can benefit from our planning.

      We benefited from advice from STEM Team East, who shared their experiences. In particular, they advised distributing pupils from each school between the workshops, to ensure that if a school dropped out, we would not have an empty workshop.

      The event was timed for the end of the school year, making it easier for schools to take pupils out of class. Many of the local schools run an Activity Week in the final week of term, and we coincided with this period.

      We benefited from the enthusiasm and energy of many volunteers who gave talks, ran workshops, took part in ‘career speed dating’, and led tours. Without the wholehearted support of the Directors of the Lab and Garden, and of the staff that work there, the day could not have been the success it was.