“I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to spend every day thinking about some of the big unanswered questions,” says Hannah Banks, a research fellow studying theoretical particle physics at Cambridge University in the UK. “At school I was very uncertain and almost didn’t apply to university, but once I got there it was so liberating to start seeing physics as a field of discovery rather than just a list of facts and formulae to learn.”
Banks is a tutor for The Brilliant Club, a UK-based charity set up in 2011 to improve university access for school students from less advantaged backgrounds – defined in this case as living in a deprived part of the UK, being eligible for free school meals, or having no parental history of higher education. By challenging pupils with ideas and concepts that are beyond the confines of the normal school syllabus, Brilliant Club tutors can offer an insight into the richness and joy of exploring a subject within a more enquiring university environment.
“I wanted to get involved with The Brilliant Club to show young people that science is cool and amazing, and also to make them aware that university might not necessarily be what they think it is,” continues Banks. “University changed my life because I was suddenly being asked to take control of my learning and think in different ways, and I want to help young people to see a future in which they can pursue whatever it is that interests them.”
The Brilliant Club provides tutor-led courses for around 20,000 pupils every year, and has also introduced a smaller programme to guide and support students who have recently moved into higher education. All of its tutors are either studying for a PhD or already have their doctorate, with the aim of providing school students with a first-hand insight into the university experience.
“We want to harness our tutors’ love of learning and knowledge of academic life to inspire a new generation of students,” says The Brilliant Club’s Zoë Morgan. “Tutors who are passionate about their research, and can bring that to life in a classroom, can have a huge impact on young people who might not otherwise think that university is an option that’s open to them.”
The charity is particularly keen to recruit new tutors with a background in science, engineering or mathematics, including people who may have moved on from academia. “There is often high demand from schools for physics and maths courses, but we can find it more difficult to attract tutors in those subjects,” says Morgan. “Some of our tutors may have retired or moved into a different profession, and find it really enriching to reconnect with their research and think about it again from a different perspective.”
Under the charity’s flagship initiative, The Scholars Programme, expert tutors design and deliver a short course of seminars based on their own area of research, with The Brilliant Club providing support and training as well as arranging placements with partner schools. To encourage discussion tutors work with small groups of students, who at the end of the course are expected to complete a university-style final assignment.
“The tutorials are designed to be quite interactive, and for some students the small-group environment is a really positive experience,” explains Lauren Martin, another physics tutor who so far has worked with around 350 students in Kent, which operates a selective grammar-school system. “The Brilliant Club works exclusively with students attending non-selective state schools, and opportunities like this can make a real difference because it gives them the confidence that they can succeed at something that’s quite challenging.”
It may seem daunting to create a course that engages school students with complex scientific concepts, but The Brilliant Club provides plenty of support, training and feedback to help tutors pitch their seminars at the right level. “The Brilliant Club organized a fantastic workshop that showed me how to develop my course by thinking about the learning outcomes I wanted to achieve,” comments Banks. “The training made me realize the importance of active learning to get the students involved, by making sure that they work out the solutions for themselves.”
The courses are designed to stretch the students’ knowledge and understanding beyond the national curriculum, with schools choosing participants who they believe will benefit most from the programme. “We want the courses to challenge the students and emulate the learning environment within a university,” says Morgan. “At the end the students also have the opportunity to visit an academic institution to celebrate their graduation, which for many of them will be a completely new experience.”
When creating their courses both Martin and Banks took inspiration from the ideas and experiences that first piqued their interest in science. “It was hard to get started, because when you get involved in research it’s easy to get so focused on the details that you forget the big picture,” recalls Martin. “I went back to the concepts that interested me in physics when I was at school, and so my course explores Einstein’s theory of special relativity and how it changes our perception of time, as well as the importance of symmetry in understanding the universe.”
Martin also valued the coaching and feedback she received from The Brilliant Club when she was developing the course, as well as from the teacher who arranged her first placement. “It was a great first introduction because the teacher was there during my first session,” she explains. “She provided some really useful feedback, to talk a bit slower, to ask questions in a different way, and she gave me some tips on how to engage students who may need more encouragement.”
Martin has also tutored younger pupils, although in this case the courses are pre-designed by The Brilliant Club to ensure they are suitable for each specific age group. “For students in the last two years of primary school I have taught a course on statistics, in particular encouraging them to question how they are interpreted,” she explains. “For years 7 and 8 we have focused on cracking ciphers and codes.”
With ambitions to become a teacher herself, Martin’s experiences with The Brilliant Club have helped her to develop vital classroom techniques within a gentler small-group environment. “I have learnt the importance of adapting the session to meets the needs of the people in the room,” she says. “If your carefully prepared explanation doesn’t work, you need to think on your feet and present the material in a way that works for the students in front of you.”
For Banks, who is intent on pursuing a research career, the experience of tutoring school students has helped her to develop the skills needed to communicate her work to scientists working in other areas. “We are always presenting our research results in seminars and conferences, and working with The Brilliant Club has helped me to introduce my work to people who are not focused on the exact same problem,” she says. “In research it’s important to explain complex topics in an accessible way, and tutoring has helped me to develop those softer skills that are often neglected in formal study.”
The Brilliant Club pays tutors for their time, but for Martin and Banks the biggest benefit has been the opportunity to inspire young people and introduce them to scientific concepts and ideas they would not normally be exposed to. “I have loved the opportunity to meet all these brilliant kids, and hopefully to pass on my love and passion for science to them,” says Banks. “Sometimes you can see the light bulb go on, when they see something differently or have really understood something properly for the first time, and that has been so rewarding.”
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