Science access programmes: why are they important?

Science and Technology

In a training trip on the River Thames in London, Professor Marcus du Sautoy, founder of the mathematics outreach programme Mathemagician, is teaching a few student volunteers how to show that a tetrahedron is more structurally stable than a cube – using bamboo sticks and rubber bands.

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Mareli Augustyn, Mathemagicians Coordinator and school liaison officer at the Department of Statistics, explains that welldoing maths outside the classroom in an otherwise familiar environment can make it more approachable. “You can see directly how it has affected the environment that you live in, and I think that makes a big difference.”

Rebecca Cotton-Barratt, Admissions Coordinator and Schools Liaison Officer of the Mathematical Institute, also explains the importance of school outreach programmes in mathematical sciences. “Not that many kids take further maths A-level, and generally we want to see more children taking maths at A-level.”

Augustyn comments that the situation in statistics is similar, but also highlights the fact the number of applicants from the UK has been declining. “We don’t have as much of a gender issue, but we want to make sure that all students from all backgrounds are aware if opportunities available in maths and statistics and University of Oxford.”

But understanding the reality of science in your daily life is only one small part of the thinking behind the University’s  programmes – getting students from a diverse background is important to many departments. A University spokesperson said in a statement: “Outreach events often give students direct access to a leading Oxford academic in a particular field, which can help to engage and excite students about their chosen subject […] and to inspire students, whatever their background, who wish to study sciences, to consider Oxford if they have the capacity to meet our entry requirements.”

This view is echoed by various departments across the MPLS division. For instance, Augustyn commented: “Mainly we go to state schools. We may go to independent schools but we definitely prioritise state schools.”

Some access events in Oxford are state-school only. For example, the UNIQ Summer School, a free residential programme which is exclusively for Year 12 state school students, has run since 2010 and seen a huge number of its participants make successful applications.

A University spokesperson added: “We keep detailed records on our outreach events and analyse these in order to work out what methods are most effective. For example, by keeping track of the destinations of students who attend our UNIQ summer schools for students from state school backgrounds, we know that in 2013, 43.6 [per cent] of the 544 UNIQ participants who applied to Oxford received a conditional offer. This summer, UNIQ will host 1,000 students in Oxford.”

According to a report called “University of Oxford: Agreement with the Office for Fair Access 2014-15”, 40.1 per cent of the UNIQ attendees across different subjects received a conditional offer to the University.

The report also noted that: “[t]he vast majority of our outreach with schools is aimed at the maintained sector, in particular at those schools and colleges with significant numbers of students who have the attainment required by Oxford but do not have a strong track record of making applications to the University.”

The report also also explains the University’s key target categories: “[the approach] places additional emphasis on students who come from backgrounds that indicate both educational and socio-economic disadvantage. Candidates who apply from care backgrounds (looked-after children) receive particular attention, and are highlighted specifically in the application process for additional consideration by tutors. In 2011-12 a flag for applicants from neighbourhoods with low participation in HE [higher education] was also introduced. A further flag was introduced for 2012 entry for applicants from schools and colleges that historically have had limited progression to Oxford.”

But what is the purpose of these contextual flags? According to the University, “[t]he aim is to make sure the brightest students are given the chance to show their potential at interview, when their initial paper application may not do justice to their full potential.”

However, will these flags amount to a positive discrimination and against students who are not put in a target category? The University spokesperson says no: “Contextual data is used in considering who gets invited to an interview but plays no part in deciding who gets an offer, or what that offer is.”

Another problem, highlighted previously in this section, is the participation of women in STEM subjects. Suzanna Marsh, the school liaison officer of the Department of Computer Science, comments that although there is no positive discrimination regarding gender, the department is aware of the lack of women. While in previous years, the rate of female offers was hopping around the UK average, she was pleased this year that there were around 25 per cent of computer science offers were made to women.

Cotton-Barratt has also commented: “we are also a bit concerned by the gender bias [among the] applicants. We tend to see more boys applying than girls and that’s because more boys take further maths at A-level than girls.”

Because of that, various MPLS departments have organised different programmes targeted to women, such as the Year 9 Girls’ Conference in Maths on 25 April.

The outreach programmes target not just students, but parents and teachers too. Many teacher conferences, for instance, are held in Oxford and chaired by school liaison officers. Marsh explains there are many talented and hard-working, but often overstretched-teachers out there who want the best for their students. “We want to be able to help them – that’s why, for example, we’ve created free resources that can be used in schools. If we can help them [teachers], it will help students in the long term […] it will also break down myths within students.”

In the statement from the University, a spokesperson comments: “We work with teachers and students from all types of schools to ensure their students have sufficient information on how to make a competitive application to Oxford, and to encourage the brightest students to apply. The University has contacts at a great majority of the UK schools with post-16 educational provision.”

Rachel Pickering, OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs, agrees: “Engaging with teachers and parents is a key component of widening access to Oxford. This work tends to be coordinated centrally, through the central admissions team who run events.”

“OUSU helps to recruit students to participate in these events, via the Target Schools mailing (which is used to offer opportunities to current students) […] the core focus of our work lies in my role as a student representative on University Committees which decide access policy (the Moritz Heyman Management Group, the Reach Scholarship scheme etc), producing the bi-annual alternative prospectus, and running Target Schools – our access campaign, which is 31 years old, and holds shadowing days which over 200 Year 12 students participate in a year.”

The feedback from both the students and teachers at these events is generally positive, according to Augustyn. “At all the events I’ve given – generally quite a mixed audience, not necessarily students who are purely interested in maths or statistics – the feedback is generally very good because they are exposed to something that they may not even have been aware that they were interested in.”

Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians (M^3) is a group of current maths students, junior research fellows and PDRA’s at the University of Oxford, championed by Professor Marcus du Sautoy, the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. They run workshops and activities and give talks about maths to a wide range of audiences, including workshops for school children aged 5 -17, interactive lectures for adults and game stalls in a number of science festivals. To follow Maths in the City on twitter, search for @mathsinthecity online. To volunteer in various science outreach programmes organised by your department, visit http://www.mpls.ox.ac.uk/schools-liaison-and-outreach and look for the email address of the appropriate school liaison officer.

Photos/ James Lau