Updated: 2 days ago
Our intern, Ruchi Bhuta, sat down with Dr David Warren from the University of Otago to talk about their chemistry outreach programme and the benefits these programmes provide to all involved.
The chemistry department at the University of Otago has been running a school outreach programme since 2008, led by Dr David Warren. This chemistry outreach programme targets schools in largely remote regions, connecting university postgraduate students with primary, intermediate and high schools throughout Dunedin, Otago and Southland.
Each year, volunteers clock up about 1,000 hours running weekly or fortnightly classes or one-off science events in over 30 schools. Their audience are often young students who don’t have regular exposure to science and may not engage much with science-related careers.
Unlike many university outreach programmes, Dr Warren's has a strong focus on targeting younger students (Year 4 to Year 8). He knew early on he wanted his programme to reach students prior to them dropping science subjects in school. The opportunity to participate in this program is often extended to schools that do not have the resources and accessibility to engage the students in science (Warren, 2020). Hands-on experiments and science talks show ākonga how exciting and fun chemistry can be and the potential pathways that science learning can take them. The volunteers who facilitate these sessions gain invaluable skills and experiences from the programme as well.
To gain further insight into the outreach programme, I, Ruchi Bhuta, conducted an interview with Dr David Warren.
R: Tell me a bit about yourself
DW: I am originally from the United Kingdom and was trained as a high school teacher. I came to New Zealand to teach chemistry and was the head of the chemistry department at Wairarapa College in Masterton. Then I came down to Otago and I was completing my PhD on photo catalysts and fuel cells. On finishing my PhD, I got a teaching job at the University of Otago and was appointed to work on the first-year chemistry as well as initiating the outreach programme. I love teaching and I teach as much as possible.
R: Why are programs like this important?
DW: Programs like this are important because of two reasons, with schools being the first. Outreach programmes are all about engaging the students in science. The whole idea started when me and my wife noticed vaccine hesitancy in children on a large scale. We heard a child say, “My mother thinks scientists are evil”. There was this kind of thinking because of the lack of engagement with the scientists in their community. It is important to introduce science to young children based on evidence and facts to alter this perception.
The second reason why the outreach programme is important is from a university point of view. The volunteers (University postgraduate students) have the opportunity to reflect on their teaching experience in their university learning assessments. It adds skills to the resume of the students who participated in it. Outreach programmes improve student self-efficacy and give them the confidence and ability to teach a group of people while enjoying it.
R: What are the limitations or difficulties that you have faced in the past and how did you address them?
DW: The biggest difficulty in the outreach programme is managing time. This work requires the commitment of most of the participant’s time. Another difficulty is the budget. Managing and organising the budget always varies according to the circumstances.
R: How do you choose which schools you partner with and which regions you target?
DW: The programme has mostly extended through the word of mouth. Initially, we advertised to let people know that this is a service that we offer. After a while, the schools invite us in and we do some teaching sessions. When the teacher of one school moves to another, the outreach program is also introduced to the new school.
R: Where do you see this programme going in future?
DW: Ideally, I would like the outreach programme to be embedded in the department so after my retirement it can still be carried on. One of the current aims is to get more academics involved.
R: What insights have you gained from this programme so far?
DW: The biggest insight I have gained is how amazing the students are. Apart from their knowledge in chemistry, it is interesting to see their other skills as well. It is a privilege to work with some of them. Another insight that I have gained is the desperate need for science to be embedded in the communities across New Zealand. There are many barriers I have seen, like how far the universities are from the remote rural areas of New Zealand.
R: What is your advice for organisations wanting to get into similar work?
DW: One advice for others is that it is important to appoint someone exclusively to run the outreach programme. If the outreach programme is run by the existing academic staff, it sets a limit in the programme's potential as the workload gets increased. It will take three to five years to get a programme up and running. Another advice is to keep modifying the programme over time.
R: Is there anything else you would like to share?
DW: I think that every university should be conducting an outreach programme given the benefits it serves to the students involved.
Find out more about University of Otago's Chemistry Community outreach here:
Te Hononga Akoranga COMET (2022). STEM book. STEM Alliance.
Warren, D. (2020). Student outcomes from a long‐term outreach program working in rural and low‐income schools. Journal of the Chinese Chemical Society, 67(12), 2233-2240.