Science educator Dr Sarah Bearchell shares her enthusiasm with young children to get them engaged and learning, with award-winning results.
By Lindsey Harrad
Dr Sarah Bearchell
St Catherine’s College, 1991
‘One of the experiments that gets the best response is when we get the teacher to produce a “poo” in front of assembly and the children just love it,’ laughs Sarah Bearchell, science educator. ‘This experiment came from one of my “Ask a scientist” sessions, and an eight-year-old boy wanted to know why we have two intestines instead of one. I hung a backpack on his front with a pair of lips and we pulled a piece of string out until it reached the length of his digestive tract from end to end – which everyone found quite horrifying – then using a mixture of cold porridge, sweetcorn and coffee we squeezed out a very authentic-looking fake poo through thick black tights to show how the intestines work. It makes a very visual connection with the kids and they think it’s great fun too.’
After reading biological sciences at St Catherine's (pictured below), Bearchell ended up working in the field, quite literally, researching practical agriculture and horticulture before getting her PhD at Reading University, with the intention of eventually returning to academia as a lecturer. ‘Going into education was never on my radar while I was at Oxford, certainly not school-age teaching. But after having a family, I realised I needed to find a job that would fit around my children, and in the meantime I thought I’d keep busy by helping out at their school.’
But as her workshops gradually became a regular fixture at the school, she was invited to become a science governor, and then became a STEM ambassador (stemnet.org.uk), and before long she started to receive invitations to run sessions in other schools. Winning the 2014 Joshua Phillips Award for innovation in science engagement for her work with children with special needs cemented her commitment to working in this field, and Sarah’s Adventures in Science continues to engage and amaze children through a variety of creative events and activities.
‘Children are natural scientists and they ask so many questions. They need their questions to be answered or they’ll just stop asking. In the future I’d love to see every primary school having an ongoing relationship with a scientist so they can see the diversity of real scientists out there. I want children to see science as part and parcel of normal life. The buzz phrase is ‘science capital’; it’s about helping children to make their own critical assessment of science, to encourage them to think for themselves.’
From growing wheat to experimenting with lasers and making clouds, Bearchell now runs a wide range of workshops for children of all ages and abilities, and her next aim is to secure more grants from organisations such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, which has already funded some of her work, to enable her to offer her services to more schools for free. ‘It’s very different from the “proper” job I expected to go into,’ she says. ‘But this is definitely my career now – it’s far too much fun to give it up for academic life.’