Category Archives: Widening Participation

Widening Participation School case study

In our experience, the longer it takes for a scientist or engineer to reach a school, the less likely those students are to have visits. We’ve done some research that suggests schools more than 30 minutes travel time are less likely to receive visits.

We also think looking at Widening Participation schools is useful to understand the variety of schools we have wanting to take part.

A school that met both our under-served and widening participation definitions took part in the Organs Zone, March 2017.

Based in one of the most rural counties in England, 23.5% of students are eligible for free school meals, and the driving time to the local HEI is over an hour. They have participated in I’m a Scientist once before.

Event participation

Two classes took part in March 2017; one year 10 and one year 11. Both classes were in the Organs Zone, a themed zone funded by Wellcome.

Schools data

62 students were active in the event, using ASK, CHAT or VOTE at least once. On average students asked 14 lines of live chat, with one student accounting for 75 lines. 54 questions were approved through ASK.

Live chats

Keywords from the two live chats. Size of the word represents its popularity.


ASK questions

Students can ask anything that want. Looking at the types of question asked is a great way to see what students were interested in talking to the scientists about. How science works, which includes the process, motivations and ethics behind science was the most popular topic of questions. We’ve looked at the percentage of questions in each category, and compared the specific school with a wider range of questions asked in the events. 

Questions asked by the students include:
What’s the fanciest piece of kit you’ve used?
What do you think you will be able to do with your research?
Is it possible in the future to two people to have the same DNA and they would think speak and look the same
How do you think the cells are connected? Is it not just electrical signals between?
what made you want to take biology into the real world and go into more depth into the human body
Have you discovered any groundbreaking results?
if you can change 3 thing about the world what would they be

What counts as a WP schools?
As there is no set definition of what makes a school a widening participation school, we use the following.

A school will be classed as WP if:

  • an above average number of students are eligible for free school meals. Currently schools with more than 14% free school meals. (England, Wales and NI)
  • more than 20% of its pupils live in the 20% most deprived datazones (Scotland)



Posted on December 15, 2017 modnaomi in Case Study, News, Widening Participation | Leave a comment

School engagement in STEM enrichment: Effect of school location

In recent years funders of public engagement and outreach activities have made a priority of reaching underserved audiences.

Wherever we looked we found anecdotal evidence that while, as a sector we were becoming increasingly effective at reaching schools in deprived parts of our metropolitan areas, rural communities continued to miss out.

But anecdotal data only gets you so far. We wanted to find out just how much the more remote schools were missing out. We also wanted to know what constitutes a remote school in this context.

First we looked to see what information already existed. There are some organisations who hold vast quantities of data about scientists and engineers visiting schools. However that data was not easily available for analysis. So we turned to a source we could access. The teachers who have signed up for our projects.

We wanted to find out:

  • Whether some schools access more STEM enrichment activities than others
  • And if so, is the location of the school a limiting factor
  • Whether there’s a difference between visits to the school, and visits from the school


We surveyed teachers who have registered for any of our UK based projects, including I’m a Scientist, I’m an Engineer and Debate Kits. The teachers were predominantly subject teachers. We therefore worked on the assumption that teachers can best talk about the classes they teach, and it would be unreliable for them to make assumptions about the wider school.

Who answered the survey?

Survey respondents: Subject taught (left), type of school taught at (centre), and location of schools (right).

What did we find?

Distance really matters.

Access to STEM engagement is not universal. Schools within 15 minutes drive of a major research HEI are twice as likely to get a visit from a university scientist than those over a 30 minute drive.

Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a difference when arranging to take students off-site for visits, but with teachers citing costs and time restraints as barriers to offering these activities, it’s clear to us that we need to be improving the offer to more distant schools.

If you have any comments, thoughts, or would like to know more, please get in touch with

Posted on November 30, 2017 modnaomi in Evaluation, News, Widening Participation | Leave a comment

How do students from different schools engage with IAS?

Thousands of school students meet scientists through I’m a Scientist every year, and they ask thousands of questions.

In June 2017, over 3,000 students took part, asking scientists more than 2,500 questions in the ASK section alone. This is also the event that we implemented our question coding system across all the zones to see what students are asking about.

This all got us thinking:

Do students from different types of schools ask more or less of certain question types?

We’ve identified two groups we want to look at:

Under-served: Schools more than 30 minutes travel time from a major research HEI

Widening Participation: Schools with an above average number of students eligible for free school meals

Taking the questions from the I’m a Scientist zones in June 2017 it appears that:

  • Overall, the split of questions is similar across all groups of students
  • Under-served students ask more “science topics” and “personal” questions, getting to know the scientists outside work
  • WP students ask slightly more questions around “careers and education”







For all groups, questions about careers and education are the most common, and questions about the event or completely random and unrelated are the least (phew).

But why the differences?

Are they indicative of how students at different schools view scientists and STEM?

Do under-served students ask slightly more “personal”, and science topic questions to compensate for fewer opportunities to meet scientists in person?

Does the slightly higher percentage of WP students asking about “careers and education” demonstrate their greater interest in understanding future opportunities in STEM?


We don’t have the answers, but it’s certainly interesting to us that there are small differences in the types of questions students’ ask.

If you have thoughts on why this might be, we’d love to hear them, or if you want to talk about how you can support more under-served and WP students to have this opportunity get in touch: 01225 326892

Posted on September 14, 2017 modnaomi in Evaluation, News, Widening Participation | Leave a comment

Travel Time

Map of UK schools more than 25 miles from a university.

Map of UK schools more than 25 miles from a university, showing primary schools (yellow), secondary schools (green), mixed/other schools (blue), and schools where teachers have registered interest in the I’m a Scientist and I’m an Engineer projects (red). [Click image for full size]

Last summer we wrote a post about using distance as a measure for identifying widening participation schools.

Since then, we have completed our map (pictured) of schools in the UK which lie farther than 25 miles from a major research institution.

In July we mentioned that travel time, in place of as-the-crow-flies distance may be a better measure of accessibility.

We want to look at schools far from HEIs as these schools are more difficult for scientists and researchers to reach; a PhD student is much more likely to travel 20 minutes to a school to give a workshop, than take out an entire day to visit a school an hour away.

While distance does provide a reasonable measure for accessibility, it does miss out some of the nuance in more rural or coastal areas.

Our measure could be improved.

We got in touch with iGeolise, who specialise in travel time data, and kindly offered to take a look at our school and HEI data.

Using their data, we have created the map below.

England, Wales and Scotland schools more than 45 minutes from a major research HEI

England, Wales and Scotland schools more than 45 minutes from a major research HEI [Click map for full size image]

While there is a lot of overlap between schools on both maps, it is clear that travel time is a more realistic indicator than distance in rural and coastal areas.

We will continue to look at both measures when assessing applications from schools, and looking at the schools where we believe I’m a Scientist and I’m an Engineer can be most valuable.

You can see a full list of the criteria we use to identify widening participation, and under-served schools here. If there are any other criteria you think we should look at, or if you want to discuss data, the maps, the projects… Please do get in touch. Leave a comment below, or drop us an email:

Some notes on the data:

  • We are missing data for two HEIs in Northern Ireland, and a small number of     schools. These haven’t been mapped.
  • School information changes regularly. We have used the best information we have available, but we know there are some anomalies.
  • We were missing travel time data for the University of Cambridge; we have approximated times using averages of known data to account for a small amount of un-mapped data.
Posted on February 23, 2017 Moderator - Josh in Widening Participation | Leave a comment

An update on widening participation

In September last year we wrote about Widening Participation. We’ve refined our criteria a little since then; below is our definition of a widening participation school.

We’ve decided on these criteria because they match, in broad terms, the kinds of criteria universities use to identify widening participation students.

A widening participation school is…

In England and Wales

  • A school in an area where POLAR3 is in the first quintile, or…
  • A school where the % of students eligible for free school meals is higher than 41%, or…
  • A school where the % of students achieving 5 grades A*–C at KS4 is below 45%, or…
  • A school where the % of students level 4 in reading, writing, and maths at KS2 is below 45%, or…
  • A school more than 25 miles from their nearest HEI.

In Scotland

  • A school in a remote rural area, or a remote small town

Where an independent school matches the criteria it will not be counted as a widening participation school.

Distance as measure

The Aspires project, from King’s College London found that science capital is a key factor in terms of students aspiring to a science-related career. Science capital refers to knowledge about science and how it works, interest, understanding, and contacts (knowing somebody who works in science).

We think that one of the most substantial factors limiting students’ science capital is the ability for those students to have contact with STEM professionals; to meet scientists who they can relate to. This is where an online activity, like I’m a Scientist, has a great advantage. There is no distance barrier, no travel time. A scientist in central Manchester can have a live chat with a school in Cornwall followed immediately with a school in the Highlands.

To this end, we’ve added to our criteria: A school will count as distant if it is more than 25 miles from a major research higher education institute (HEI).

Starting with England and Wales, we took all of the schools, mapped the distance to the top 70 institutions by research output, and worked out the shortest distance between a school and a university. The map shows the schools which are more than 25 miles from one of these institutions.

We did not include smaller institutions, or those with more focused research areas as contact with scientists working in a wide variety of subjects and fields is important.

Map of schools in England and Wales more than 25 miles from their nearest HEI

Map of schools in England and Wales more than 25 miles from their nearest HEI

In Scotland the Department for Education lists schools with an urban/rural classification. Largely this covers what we are looking to achieve with the distance analysis in England and Wales (though we do plan to add HEI distance data for Scotland and Northern Ireland).

In Scotland, a school in a remote rural area, or remote small town will count as widening participation.

Schools in remote small towns and remote rural areas in Scotland

Schools in remote small towns and remote rural areas in Scotland

This measure excludes schools in accessible and urban areas; in effect the schools accessible from universities.

What about the most recent event?

In June 2016, by prioritising places for widening participation schools (meaning teachers at those schools are more likely to be given additional classes), 27% of the students taking part in I’m a Scientist came from widening participation schools.

21% of the schools taking part in June 2016 were widening participation schools.

Last year, in June 2015 we reported that 16% of the classes taking part were from schools meeting our criteria.

What’s next?

  1. Targets — By 2020, our aim is that 30% of the schools taking part meet the widening participation criteria.
  2. More data — We’re missing criteria for schools in Northern Ireland, and we’re missing attainment data for schools in Scotland. We need to add this.
  3. Improving the definition of schools in relation to their nearest HEI — Do we need to look at creating a more nuanced definition of distant schools in England and Wales? The current definition looks at distance rather than travel time. Travel time is likely a better measure but more difficult to assess. We would also like to look in more detail at the level of outreach different schools are receiving.
  4. A new database — We’re in the process of building a database of all UK schools which will be integrated into the teacher application process. This will allow us to more easily identify and allocate places to priority schools. It will also open new reporting features to teachers, giving schools more data on how their students are using the projects.
Posted on July 15, 2016 Moderator - Josh in News, Project News, School, Science Education, Widening Participation | Leave a comment

Reaching widening participation schools. Does it work?

Fair access has been at the heart of what we do at I’m a Scientist. One of our long term goals is to increase the number of widening participation schools taking part in our projects. To do this, the first question we asked ourselves was: What is a widening participation school? But now we have yet another question: is it worth it?

Our instinct tell us it is, but is there any evidence that bringing STEM activities to those hard to reach students improves their attitudes to science or the likelihood to enrol in a STEM career?


You can click to download the full report by FECYT.     Only in Spanish.

We’ve looked for this evidence and we’ve found a very nice piece of research carried out by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT, by its Spanish acronym) with the help of 1,565 Y10 and Y11 students from 36 schools in Barcelona and Madrid.

The students came from different socioeconomic sectors: 12% were from a high socio-economic background, 60% from a middle one and 28% were from lower socio-economic background.

Half of the students participated in two science communication activities: a workshop and a talk, and the other half were the control group. The students in the experimental group filled in a questionnaire, then took part in workshop, took a second survey, listened to a science talk, and filled in a third survey at the end. The students in the control group took the same 3 surveys at the same time as the other group, but didn’t take part any of the outreach activities.

Impact of outreach on attitude towards STEM subjects is highest among students from vulnerable backgrounds, and those with lower grades

When they look at the change in the interest on studying STEM, they found out that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds improved their interest by 9.5%, whereas those from high socio-economic backgrounds improved it by 3% only.


Modified from “Mente Científica” report.

Moreover, when they look at the changes in the interest on studying STEM depending on the students’ school performance; they found out that the interest increased the most (almost 13%) in those with the lowest grades. The interest for studying STEM actually decreased for the excellent students achieving high grades at school.


Modified from “Mente Científica” report.

This tells us we are on the right path. We need to make sure we make our events available to everyone, especially those schools with more students from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds and lower grades because it looks like outreach has the greatest effect on them.

Our definition of a widening participation school includes those where over 41% of students are eligible for free school meals (more likely to come from a vulnerable background), as well as schools in which less than 45% of students achieve A*–C grades in 5 of their GCSE exams.

In June 2015, 16% of the classes taking part in I’m a Scientist were from a school meeting the Widening Participation criteria above. In I’m an Engineer, 17% of the classes. In the following events we are going work to reach 30% of classes taking part meeting the WP criteria by the end of 2020. As usual, we’ll keep you updated on this.

Have you observed any of the above? Do you know any other related research? Please share your comments and let us know what you think.

Posted on February 24, 2016 modangela in News, Widening Participation | Leave a comment

Widening Participation

One of our long term goals is to increase the number of Widening Participation schools taking part in our projects, but to do this, there’s a fairly fundamental question to ask first: What is a widening participation school?

Without establishing what would count as a widening participation school, it’s difficult to target these schools, and even more difficult to evaluate how well we’re doing in increasing the number taking part. Time then, to set out some criteria.

A Widening Participation School is…

  • A school where the % of students achieving grades A*–C at GCSE is below 45%, or…
  • A school where the % of students eligible for free school meals is higher than 41%, or…
  • A school in an area where POLAR3 is in the first quintile, or…
  • An SEN School

Independent schools will not be counted.

In 2013, a school with more than 41.6% of students eligible for free school meals would put that school in the highest quintile for primary schools. For secondary schools, the boundary was 44.3%.

What about the most recent events?

In June 2015, 16% of the classes taking part in I’m a Scientist were from a school meeting the Widening Participation criteria above. In I’m an Engineer, 17% of the classes.

What’s next?

We want to reach more widening participation schools, and we’re looking for new ways to do this. We’re going to pay extra attention to these schools, making sure they get the most out of taking part, that they get a live chat booked, and that the teachers are aware of other things they can do to get all the potential out of taking part. A lot of this is about sharing other teachers’ experiences which will be useful for any teachers taking part.

  1. Now we have a set of criteria we will be able to measure more accurately the numbers of Widening Participation schools we have taking part.
  2. Priority places will be given to schools meeting the criteria above.
  3. We need to improve our definition. What we have now is a placeholder definition. We believe that the schools we should be targeting are schools in rural areas where it will be difficult for the students to have contact with scientists and engineers. We want to look at schools and create a list of schools far away from research institutions. These are the schools we should focus on getting to take part.
Posted on September 4, 2015 Moderator - Josh in School, Widening Participation | Leave a comment

Engaging under-served audiences – talk at Bristol Zoo

Last week I was asked to speak about our experience of engaging under-served audiences. Here are my notes from which I spoke:

IAS is free online activity that connects school children and scientists. Kids go online, read scientist profiles, ask questions, take part in live chats and vote for the one they want to win.

Split into zones of 5 scientists and about 350 students. Mixture of general and themed zones. Been running since 2008 and reached nearly 70,000 students and over 1,000 scientists and engineers have taken part.

Scientists hear about it through colleagues, organisational emails and social media. They apply for the chance to take part. Tough selection process 1:4 for general zones.

Students hear about it through their teachers who sign up to take part. Over subscribed for I’m a Scientist and many teachers don’t get as many classes as they would like.

One way we do reach students who don’t normally get involved in science engagement is through product design.

Anecdotally, if a scientist visits a school, a class, 1:3 kids might stick their hand up to ask a question. With the online, pseudonymous nature of the activity we tend to get nearly 90% of the students actively participating – asking questions, chatting, commenting or voting. A side effect of this equality of voice is that not only do the quieter pupils get to ask their question but the other, louder, more confident students learn that their quieter peers do have something interesting to say. On a micro-scale this is reaching new audiences. And it is important. Not every engagement style works for everyone.

And it seems to suit some young people who don’t always get a say.

IAS is a spin off from a different project called I’m a Councillor, Get me out of here.

The inspiration for that project came out of conversations with council officers trying to interest young people in local democracy. They were doing things like inviting kids to shadow councillors for the day or they would invite students to visit the council chamber – and marvel at the majesty of our democratic overlords. The idea of an online activity was attractive to many, even if for some it just meant they weren’t going to need to clean up the graffiti left behind in the council chamber.

The why for us was that councils were trying to engage with mini-politicians, not mini-citizens. For me that was the more important democratic objective.

Over the 7 years that project ran some of the most memorable encounters were between the councillors and students from traditionally under-served groups.

I could talk about the pupil from the special school asking about the “futcha” for Bexhill or the feedback from the teacher at the PRU in Derbyshire who told us it was the first time that their pupils had ever been taken seriously by an authority figure. But it was the live chat between Nadia and a couple of Cardiff City Councillors that I remember best. The chat had been booked for 8pm by Steve a youth centre manager in Cardiff. It wasn’t the greatest of chats. Nadia was the only person online and was demanding a swimming pool for her and her mates. The two councillors patiently explained that Nadia should get together with friends and start a petition. After about 20 minutes of chat punctuated by strings of ****’s as Nadia’s choice of words got caught by our profanity filter, the chat was brought to a sudden end with Nadia typing, Nah can’t be bothered, bye bitches.

A disaster I thought.

5 minutes later Steve, the youth centre manager called me. That was brilliant he told me. Nadia had been excluded from every school in Cardiff and banned from every youth group. That night’s chat was the first time that Steve had ever seen Nadia engage with anything. Normally 1 in 5 words was a swear word but tonight in was only 1 in 20. He was ecstatic.

The point is that for some groups online communication is better than face-to-face and not just because of geography.

But having established that a project is good for certain groups it isn’t always as simple as that to get them involved.

We also look at the promotion aspect of reaching under-served audiences. Traditionally and anecdotally we’re told that science engagement projects do tend to reach the better resourced schools where kids often have plenty of privilege. Which means some schools are not taking part. But it isn’t so easy to identify them. Tied in is the issue for universities of widening participation as part of their fair access agreement required to charge £9,000 per year.

But what does widening participation mean? Apparently no two universities share the same definition (perhaps this has changed by now). We looked at a number of measures: IDACI, POLAR (participation in local area), and GCSE 5+ – when we looked at how the schools participating in IAS compared to the national profile against each of these criteria we were quite happy. We were getting a broad cross-section. And when compared to another large scale science engagement project we were performing well. But still not well enough.

There are flaws in the use of these measures. IDACI and POLAR give results based on the postcode of the school rather than it’s catchment area. The two can differ greatly. Secondly many of the schools in the poorest inner-city areas would also get greater funding through pupil premium and city-weighted education funding, perhaps allowing teachers more opportunities to bring in outside science engagement activities. Combine that with the fact that inner-city schools are also more likely to be within a short distance of a university and perhaps the inner-city schools aren’t so underserved.

So we still have a challenge on defining underserved.

We’re currently trying to work with other organisations like STEMNet to form a definition but in the meantime one of the factors we are looking at is distance. We’re looking to target schools from the poorer coastal areas in the UK.

But targeting is easier said than done.

We’ve conducted a few small experiments in recent years.

1. For one zone recently we sent 20 secondary schools in the most income deprived areas of the UK a teacher pack for the event inviting them to participate in the upcoming event. The idea was to make it as simple as possible for them to join in. Not one of them did. Not great.

2. More recently we posted a letter and some flyers to 200 primary schools in rural and coastal areas inviting them to apply to take part. The letter explained that Y5/6 was particularly important and that since they were in a remote area they might gain the most benefit. We’ve had 2 sign up. Not bad. OK

3. For a Food Zone in 2013 we looked at the schools signed up for the zone and worked out which would “qualify” as widening participation schools. There were about 5. Each teacher was called to make sure that they had received their packs and that they understood how the event worked. We looked after them, gave them special treatment. Every single one showed up online compared to a usual 2/3rds rate. It worked.

The learning we take from this is that you should look after the people already showing an interest. You get a better impact than simply going after more and more of your target. It might sound obvious, but for us we don’t have the time to call every school.
But we now realise that the time and money we might have spent sending stuff out to schools who hadn’t shown an interest, would be better spent on looking after the ones who had already shown some interest.

We’ll be repeating the specific targeting of schools in remote areas and giving special attention to those who respond. Thank you.

Posted on June 8, 2015 in Evaluation, Science Engagement, Widening Participation | Leave a comment

Widening Participation – Where we started (Feb 2014)

Using data from the Department for Education we have looked to see how the state schools signed up for I’m a Scientist have compared to all state schools across England (data is not as easily available for Wales, Scotland and NI). We have used 4 measures. Polar, IDACI, GCSE 5+, and FSM. More information here. We have 552 english state secondaries with correct postcodes signed up on our list. That is our sample for this data.

Anecdotally you hear that schools in the most deprived areas struggle to take part in enrichment and outreach activities like I’m a Scientist. The data we’ve analysed suggests that those schools are less likely to sign up but it is not as extreme as we expected.



That’s the good news. Schools from across the spectrum are interested in taking part in I’m a Scientist, but those that actually turn up are much more skewed towards the thriving schools.

We want to put that right.

In March 2013 the University of Nottingham funded the Food Science Zone. Over the half the funding came from the Widening Participation team and as a result a condition of the funding was that a third of the schools taking part had to be WP schools. We therefore paid particular attention to those schools. We contacted them in advance to ensure they received their materials and we took special care to make sure their live chats were well attended. The result was that all the WP schools showed up and 99% of the registered students from those schools were active. That compares to 82% of the non-WP students.

More analysis from our November 2013 event showed that students from WP schools were more likely to be excited by science, but less likely to study it in future or consider it as a future career when compared to students from the school at the opposite end of the  widening participation spectrum.

We are now offering University Widening Participation teams the opportunity to use I’m a Scientist as a Fair Access outreach scheme to engage with students who are less likely to attend higher education.

Posted on February 20, 2014 modnaomi in News, Widening Participation | Leave a comment