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Engaging with schools in a meaningful way requires careful planning, collaboration, and a deep understanding of both educational and scientific contexts. In this case study, we explore the journey of developing and delivering three research-based workshops designed for schools, each based on a different group in the Department of Chemistry.

Projects at a glance          

  • A set of three interactive workshop that gave 14-16 year olds a chance to develop their understanding about chemistry research and how it might help tackle real world problems, from climate change to drug-resistant infections.
  • Trialling the activities in advance was key to making sure they worked as intended.
  • Students developed their awareness of research, met researchers from the relevant group, and their engagement increased their optimism of how research can help tackle global challenges.
  • Enabled by securing funds from the University’s PCER Seed Fund with additional funds and in-kind support from the department.
  • The Chemistry Department have been working to support researchers to translate their work into useful learning experiences for young people. In this case study we go on an exploration of three workshops they’ve developed so far:
  • 'Plastics from Another Perspective' focused on the development of catalysis and sustainable polymers by the Williams Group,
  • 'Small, yet Mighty!' exploring research into enzymes and the hydrogen economy within the Vincent Group
  • 'Bug Fight!' considers AMR and novel pharmaceuticals developed by the Schofield Group.

These workshops aim to broaden the understanding of chemistry research among disadvantaged 14-16-year-olds, shedding light on its relevance to their daily lives and its potential to address global challenges.

Saskia O’Sullivan, the Educational Outreach Officer in Chemistry, sits down with key contributors: Souvik Giri, DPhil (Clarke Group), Louise Hutchinson​, Senior Technician (CTL), Dr Matt Beech, PDRA (Schofield Group), Emily Freeman, DPhil (Schofield Group), and Dr Helen Smith, PDRA (Schofield Group), to share valuable insights and lessons learned from their experience.


Workshop Development: Guiding Principles for Success

Saskia O’Sullivan, Educational Outreach Office in the Department of Chemistry, has a deep expertise in both formal and informal science learning so was able to provide key support to the research groups creating their workshops. There are two fundamental principles for Saskia; “Make it easy for schools, and add value to the curriculum." The essence lies in reaching out to schools, ensuring clear and frequent communication, and fitting into their timetable to minimise disruption. Additionally, tying the workshop content to the curriculum ensures relevance, showcasing the real-world applications of what students are learning.

Starting Strong: Inspiration and Concept Breakdown

Drawing inspiration from past outreach activities, Emily Freeman (‘Bug Fight!’) highlights the importance of breaking down complex concepts, “I found it helpful to have a look at previous outreach activities for inspiration and looked at the evaluation to tell me what worked well.”

Once you’ve got your overall idea formulated, Emily advises breaking down the concepts into manageable components, adding “if you’re trying to get the class to understand a new, potentially trickier, concept, then break it down into components that they should have previously been exposed to, and build up from there.”

The national curriculum should provide a guide for what students are expected to learn and when.

The development of 'Small, yet Mighty!' exemplifies the creation of an interactive workshop focused on enzyme fuel cells, aiming for both educational impact and enjoyment. “A workshop is more about a hands-on learning experience rather than listening to a lecture,” explained Souvik.

In the “Small, yet Mighty!” workshop the key topic explored was broken down into three key concepts 1) fuel cells need catalysts to generate energy 2) enzymes are catalysts and 3) enzymes can be used in fuel cells as catalysts to generate electrical energy.  An activity that focussed on each idea was developed, with a puzzle-solving exercise to stitch together all three concepts.

“Students are more engaged while doing an experiment… but you do need good instructions for them. Photos and videos can help all students, and particularly those students who have English as an Additional Language.”


Four Bug Bight Ambassadors prepped and ready to deliver Bug Fight!Four Bug Bight Ambassadors prepped and ready to deliver Bug Fight!

Smooth Sailing: Navigating Practical Realities in Workshop Development

Emily stressed the importance of taking practical constraints into consideration early on, saying, “we knew ‘Bug Fight!’ had to be within an hour, and we had to account for enough equipment for a whole class (32 students, if not more!). Ideally, we then wanted to have duplicates for easy reset of each activity. This guided how the activities were set out.“ Thinking about the mechanics of clean up and change-over is especially important to ensure your day goes smoothly.

Saskia shared that a pandemic development of using a hybrid approach (live MS Teams) meant that they could reduce the demand on researchers’ time yet still ensure engagement between school students and active researchers. She explained, “our workshops are either delivered as a single day of consecutive workshops in local schools, or as part of a roadshow week for those further afield. It’s hard to have researchers out of the labs for long periods, so this is a way of addressing this constraint.”

Testing Ground: Ensuring Workshop Effectiveness

Trialling the workshops, as unanimously agreed, is crucial. The ‘Bug Fight!’ workshop involved presenting the science behind the fight against resistant bacteria and teaching about enzymes, substrates and inhibitors by taking students through experiments based on real work conducted in the group’s laboratories. 

Matt emphasised, “it’s hard sometimes to judge how long something will take, and we came unstuck here and had to change the format. It’s good to trial it as you want to have these issues ironed out before you’re in front of a class of 15-year-olds!” 

It might be intimidating to think about changing something you’ve spent a lot of time developing, but Louise had these words of encouragement: “Having seen the process through a number of times, you're always going to learn something from trials, so don’t be too wedded to ideas and be open to change.”

The Department has a strong link with the trainee teacher course in the Department for Education, so once the Bug Fight! And Small, yet Mighty! workshops were developed, the groups trialled it with PGCE students. Emily cautioned “they [colleagues] will probably do it quicker than a student so take this as a baseline of how quickly an activity can be completed and expect it to take longer.“

The team has taken a continuous improvement approach, regularly reviewing the workshops. Plastics From Another Perspective, having been delivered during the pandemic, has now been trialled across many schools. “Our recent roadshow has highlighted that we need to add an additional practical activity to this particular workshop,” Saskia observed.

Bridging the Gap: From Development to Classroom

So you’ve carefully crafted your workshop, you’ve trialled the workshop, next it’s out to schools.

“Seeing Bug Fight! finally in a school setting was really rewarding,” beamed Emily.

The projects enlisted trained ambassadors, ranging from university students to industry partners, to assist in delivering activities within the classroom. This approach ensured that the school students received close supervision and support for conducting experiments, as well as the opportunity to pose questions related to the science, scientific studies, and careers.

Louise advised, "if you’re involving others in delivery, make sure they have clear instructions and some training beforehand.”

Souvik added, “You’re working with whole classes at an age when not all of them are keen on science, so the ambassadors do need to have training on how to engage students by asking questions and encouraging students to ask question.”

Students and workshop ambassadors during ‘Small, yet Mighty!’Students and workshop ambassadors during ‘Small, yet Mighty!’

Being agile and flexible to the needs of students is key. Checking their understanding as you go is a great skill to develop. Emily emphasised that listening to teachers was key, “we repositioned ambassadors based 

on information from the teacher who identified students who might struggle more.”

And of course, you can’t forget about those all-important risk assessments. Louise added, “whether you’re running a practical or not, make sure you’ve written your risk assessment and shared it with the school.”

Impact: Simple Strategies for Assessing Workshop Success

Last, but certainly not least, how do you know if you’ve made an impact on the young people or teachers? Your best bet is to combine simple evaluation approaches to understand whether the activities work and achieved what you set out to achieve.

Matt’s key advice is, “plan it in from the start! Involve teachers and trainee teachers as they’ll teach you a lot about engaging that age group.”.

Saskia explained, “We made sure teachers knew it’s a new workshop and that they’re helping us to trial it with students and evaluate its success. That means your teachers know you’re going to be asking them and the students for feedback and evaluation.”

For the ‘Bug Fight’ workshop, the team reached around 330 students in schools in Oxfordshire and the South-West. They incorporated surveys in the form of pre- and post-workshop quizzes. This was especially helpful for highlighting misconceptions the students tended to have. Helen explained, “we have realised that students have various misconceptions around ‘drugs’ – tending to think that taking more antibiotics was the solution to, rather than a potential way of exacerbating, the AMR crisis.” They also found that students thought it was predominantly the responsibility of scientists and healthcare providers to prevent AMR and often discounted the responsibilities of governments and the agricultural sector. “We will be able to use these findings to improve the workshop, as well as to inform further public engagement and policy-related activities,” Helen continued. Overall, their evaluation showed that they had successfully increased students understanding of drug-resistant infections.

A graph showing that students opinions of who is responsible for tackling changed after the workshop compared to before, showing that they expanded their view beyond healthcare professionals to include government, drug companies, farmers and individuals, too.

A graph showing that students opinions changed after the workshop compared to before; more students consider tackling antibiotic resistance as very important

Seeking feedback from teachers was helpful for: improving engagement of the students; ensuring accessibility for classes of all abilities; physical improvements to the experiment to make it more reproducible; and how to better fit within the GCSE curriculum to appeal to more schools.

The ‘Small yet Mighty!’ workshop made use of ‘Slido’ quizzes before and after the workshop as well as teacher feedback and found that after the workshop, students were more positive about scientific research as a possible solution to tackle climate change.

A graph showing that fewer students felt hopeless and pessimistic, and more felt very hopeful, about scientific research as a possible solution to tackle climate change after the workshop compared to before the workshop.

The project also had a positive impact on the DPhil students involved. They gained experience in developing and delivering public engagement activities, as well as in communicating science to a non-specialist audience. The PGCE students involved in the project also found it to be a valuable experience, and they appreciated the chance to contribute their expertise and opinions.

Capturing reflections from those involved can also provide insights. Souvik had this to say about the experience: “The most rewarding part is when students understand the tough concepts we teach and show their interest by asking questions.”

Students and workshop ambassador at a ‘Plastics from Another Perspective’ workshopStudents and workshop ambassador at a ‘Plastics from Another Perspective’ workshop

Money Matters: Securing Funds to turn Ideas into Reality

Securing funds is crucial as part of project initiation. Helen highlighted, "funding takes time, even for small amounts. Be prepared for the process."

Matt explained, “talk to Department teams about sources and the processes and look for multiple sources of funding as every small grant helps. Use match funding to boost your chances of success.”

Both ‘Small, yet Mighty!’ and ‘Bug Fight!’ benefitted from funding from the University’s PCER Fund, which is available annually to researchers and professional services staff, which came with extra evaluation guidance. Some workshops also had funding from learned societies.

In Conclusion

The project teams reflected that the projects had made a real impact on them as researchers. They learned about public engagement and dissemination of science to a non-specialist audience, and they were able to think outside of the box about how to bring their science closer to the younger generations. The project also made them realise that they care about the views and concerns of young people about the future, and that research in chemistry (and science in general) can be a powerful tool to fight climate change, find sustainable ways of living, and tackling the challenge of drug-resistant infections.

Next steps

If you’re keen to follow in the footsteps of these chemists:

-          Speak to your departmental outreach / engagement staff

-          Explore more examples of engagement with young people

-          Apply for funds – the University’s PCER Fund is due to open September 2024

-          Use the Universities resources to help you plan and deliver evaluation


We’d like to extend gratitude to key contributors, including Dr Jamie Wilmore, Dr Holly Yeo, Dr Adrian Hery Barranco, DPhil Maya Landis, Dr Wouter Lindeboom, Dr Patricia Rodriguez Macia, Dr Koji Urata, Dr Alistair Farley, Prof. Kylie Vincent, Prof. Charlotte Williams, and Prof. Chris Schofield.


This case study was drafted with the assistance of AI: ChatGPT was used to generate text according to human directed key points based on presentation notes. The final text was edited for content and clarity by Michaela Livingstone-Banks, with further input from Saskia O'Sullivan.