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About Care Experienced Students in Higher Education

By Amalia Mihailescu, on 17 October 2019

Hanan Hauari, whose research and collaboration with us has focused on understanding the university experiences of care leavers, has given us an insight into her most recent study to help us understand why this type of work is so important for social mobility in a higher education environment.

In recent years, there has been a lot of coverage of how few care leavers make it to university and recent reforms in higher education has meant that all fee charging universities (above £6000 a year) must formally commit to widening participation in their institutions. But how do young people from under represented groups experience higher education? Are their experiences different from that of their peers and if so in what way? The answers to these questions are not clear. Little research has been done on the student experience of disadvantage groups in higher education. However, with attention now on retention rates and a recent study (click here) reporting that nearly 20% of care leavers in university will leave before completing their course, research into the higher education experiences of care experienced students is long overdue.

Our project is a collaboration between UCL Institute of Education’s Thomas Coram Research Unit and the Access and Widening Participation office of UCL. The collaboration sought to understand the university experiences of care experienced students with a view to identifying what support is needed to improve student retention and help inform university policy and practice. We wanted to get as close as possible to the lived experiences of care leavers and therefore chose a walking interview method, a form of mobile ethnography, where participants guided researchers around their university campus and the surrounding area to explore day to day life at university. The environment is used as a kind of elicitation technique to prompt meanings and connections to place and to provoke rich and critical reflection on pastoral, academic, health and wellbeing and personal development aspects of being a student, including accessing help. Altogether, these areas give us a richer understanding of the bigger picture.

Our collaboration with the Access and Widening Participation office demonstrates UCL’s commitment to evidence led policy and practice on social mobility and education. If universities are serious about raising the aspirations of students from groups who are under-represented at university and supporting them through their journey in higher education, they need to understand what it is really like to be a care experienced student at university and the challenges they face. Only then can the appropriate support be identified and put in place.

A word from the writer:

I grew up in inner city London where I was educated in a local comprehensive. I later studied History and Politics at undergraduate level and gained a Masters degree in European Politics. I began my research career working in applied social and public policy research organisations and worked extensively on research projects under the Every Child Matters policy framework. In April 2007, I joined the Thomas Coram Research unit, IOE, UCL and continued  my research on children, young people and families. To date, much of my research has focused on the lived experiences of young people that have grown up in local authority care. I am particularly interested in their transitions out of care and into adulthood, including their educational journeys, with a focus on exploring the interacting personal and social attributes which determine their individual experiences and can therefore help inform how they can be better supported to make successful transitions in adulthood.

A summer of science well spent

By Lauren K Sandhu, on 3 October 2019

This summer a group of students at UCL ran a summer school for young migrants, refugees and asylum seeker students in the UK. The summer school ran over two weeks in July and August 2019 for 40 young people, aged 14-19. The project is student-led and involved student volunteers from the London Centre for Nanotechnology, UCL Physics & Astronomy, UCL Computer Science, UCL Engineering, and the Institute of Education (IoE). Today on the blog we hear from the organising team about their experience of running the summer school. 

Ever wondered how to extract DNA from fruit? Build your own microscope? Program a robot?

This summer a group of young refugees, migrants and asylum seekers attended a summer school at UCL and got to experience the joy of scientific discovery.

PhD students and postdocs from the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN) and teachers from the Institute of Education (IoE) ran a two week summer school at UCL. The course, now in its second year, aimed to help the students to improve their science, computing and English language knowledge, helping them build vital skills and inspiring them for the future.

The team led by Safe Khan, Maeve McLaughlin, Jonathan Fouchard, Ana Lisica, Massimiliano Ramsay and Alex Pakpour-Tabrizi built on the success of the pilot event in 2018, possible thanks to essential funding from The Ogden Trust and UCL’s Access and Widening Participation Office. In 2019 the programme was expanded to a two week course (teaching 10am – 4pm) for 40 students.

The English team, led by Michael Beaney and Jumana Al-Waeli (IoE) with support from professional teacher volunteers held classes each morning. Students were introduced to the science and IT language of the specific topics, providing them with the tools and helping them prepare for the afternoon activities whilst practicing more general English skills.

The IT sessions, led by Muslihah Albakri, involved teaching students basic computing skills useful for their school work and future employment, including setting up email addresses, using Microsoft Office and writing CVs. The students were introduced to this new format to present themselves and wrote down any relevant experiences for their dream jobs.

To introduce the students to the basics of computing and robotics, we teamed up with George Walker who supplied us with some OhBots!­, the robot used by Microsoft Stores in their Tech Spark summer program to teach coding. With the help of Alex, George taught the students how to use the block coding language to control the movements and speech of the robots. This was the first time that the majority of the students had been introduced to the concept of coding and for many it was a real highlight of the summer school!

During the experimental physics lesson, led by Massimiliano, the students assembled DIY microscopes and got creative with their phone cameras to successfully obtain images with 20x magnification. The students were fascinated by the detail they could resolve with the microscopes and excitedly showed off their work in a best image competition. Top images included macro shots of leaves, porous shells and fingerprints.

“I liked meeting many PhD students from physics, which was very inspiring. I really liked the friendly environment in the class.”, stated one student. All tasks were run in very small groups, allowing everyone involved to take a front seat. This was a great way to involve and engage all the students, giving them plenty of opportunity to practice experiments and ask questions.

For the biology focused lesson, led by Jonathan and Ana, the students extracted DNA from strawberries and bananas. They did this with simple household items: salt, washing up liquid, hot water and a little isopropyl alcohol (IPA). This tricky task tested their patience and determination, with many of the experiments requiring multiple attempts. However all groups managed to extract the DNA before the end of the lesson.

One student who had been looking forward to the biology lesson said: “My favourite part of the summer school was when we extracted DNA!” A short presentation by Jonathan and Ana highlighted the importance of DNA in defining our individual characteristics and its similarity to a computer code, comparing and contrasting to the coding used with the OhBots!

During the two weeks, students gained confidence speaking and writing English. They were highly engaged in every lesson and were particularly inspired by the experimental science and programming classes, and also had the opportunity to make new friends.

Finally, the summer school hosted an end of class celebration with posters prepared by all the students presenting their favourite topics from the science classes. PhD students, teachers, funders and even some of the students’ parents attended. The students were all extremely enthusiastic presenting their posters and the celebration proceeded with pizza, snacks and a certificate ceremony. It was truly a great ending to a fantastic fortnight of science and English activities!

After the end of the summer school, we received the email below, full of encouragement for us to continue with this program!

“Dear UCL Summer School team, I would like to say a big thank you for every person in the Summer School team who have supported, taught, helped and encouraged us through these two weeks, I appreciate every single person and their effort in the team, I love the way you support the students and help them. I wish a very bright future for everyone. I will not have this opportunity again and it will always remain in my heart as a beautiful memory with you all.”

Further information about the LCN Summer School for Young Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers is available on The Ogden Trust’s website.

A word from the writers:

“The organising team believe that the summer school was a great success. Many of the students were excited to continue working in this area when they return back to their schools and colleages in September. By organising the summer school as a group this year and with greater structure than we have for the pilot scheme (2018) we hope that we have now set up a sustainable scheme to teach English Language, science and computer skills to refugees, young migrants and asylum seeking students. We are confident that the summer school will be led by future PhD students at the LCN and IoE for many years to come!” 

A Generating Genius Experience

By Amalia Mihailescu, on 26 September 2019

Mariatu has been at several outreach events that UCL has organised in collaboration with Generating Genius and is now starting her first year as a Mechanical Engineering student. You can read below about her experience with Access and Widening Participation and see how this has helped her choose and go for what she is really passionate about.

The first time I was introduced to coding was at an outreach event hosted by UCL and organised by Generating Genius. I was 14 years old at that time. l started the session very confused, as I didn’t even know something like this existed, but ended it feeling enlightened and wanting to know more. Five years later, I have learnt how to programme in three new coding languages (CSS, HTML and C++) and am currently teaching myself python.

I am going into my first year of university to study Mechanical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. My choice of course and institution was mainly influenced by attending summer schools and outreach events. Being able to speak with current students from top universities about their experience was important and allowed me to make an informed choice, that was right for me.

Widening Participation is essential as it provides students, who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity, with a platform to know more and be more open-minded about what’s available to them (especially if they do not have family members with knowledge about further education). It’s very useful for them to see students that look like them, in top institutions, studying subjects that they want to study. I believe it changes their mindset for the better.

This was the case for me when I went to the Imperial Engineering summer school in year 12. I always wanted to be an engineer but I didn’t believe in my potential. Meeting female students and hearing from them inspired me and boosted my confidence and I am proud to say that has stayed with me until this day.

What I enjoyed about widening participation was not only the free (and very delicious) food, but also making new friends. It’s nice to meet people who have similar interests to you. I am still in contact with most of the people I met through my summer schools. It’s refreshing to see that we are all on the path that we intended to take when we entered the programme and that is proof that your work makes a difference.

This summer I am interning with Generating Genius and my role is Assistant Programme Manager. Essentially, what I do is help plan and organise events. We recently just finalised the plans for the new Uni Genius cohort that we will be taking on for the next two years and applications are now open! I was on the programme throughout year 12 and  13 and it benefited me in ways I cannot even describe. I got the chance to go to different universities with Generating Genius (all expenses paid for), I was offered extra revision classes to help me with my A-levels outside of school and work experience. All in all, these helped me make a final decision regarding the degree I wanted to study.

If you know that you are interested in STEM, you are a hard and resilient worker and want to be mentored by people that have your best interest at heart, then this programme is definitely for you. Applications close on Wednesday 16th of October, so make sure you sign up so you don’t miss this opportunity!

WPeople: Jenny McGovern

By Amalia Mihailescu, on 19 September 2019

In retrospect of our Summer Challenge programme, Jenny McGovern, now a Postdoc in the department of Immunity and Transplantation, has shared some thoughts on her experience with our Widening Participation team, from school student to UCL academic staff.

In the summer of 2002 I knew I wanted to go to university but I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what to expect when I got there. My parents had never been to university and didn’t have much advice to offer; I was worried that the work would be too hard, the other students far too clever and that no one else would be like me. So, I went on the UCL widening participation summer school and I LOVED it. The work was stimulating and my cohort were a group of fellow nerds who asked even more questions than me!

Fast-forward to summer 2018, I was now six years post-PhD and more excited than ever about science and research. So, I turned to UCL Widening Participation to see if I could run a course like the one I had done all those years ago.

I opted to run a Summer Challenge programme over six weeks and I corralled some PhD students to help me out (the lovely Francesca Sillito and Gabrielle Ferry). The experience has been amazing and the students are, unsurprisingly for a bunch who self-elect to have two extra hours of school each week, incredibly bright and keen to learn. Any doubt that we’re boring them or going over their heads has been dispelled by the enthusiasm and ability they show when completing worksheets or doing presentations. When you put so much time into planning something it’s great to have a receptive audience!

Now I’ve come full circle; I’ve been both student and teacher. To any prospective students thinking about the programme I would urge you to give it a try. You just have to show up and engage – there’s no homework or unnecessary pressure AND you might just surprise yourself. To any prospective organisers, I hope that my path from apprehensive 18-year old to PhD and beyond demonstrates that being exposed to experiences like these can change your whole outlook on the future. So, what are you waiting for?

A word from the writer: 

My love of complex systems led me to study Anatomical Sciences at the University of Manchester. After my first year, I was encouraged to enter a four-year programme with a year in industry. Spending a year in the lab built my technical skills and was my first introduction to the power of manipulating the immune system for therapy – I was hooked! I took up a PhD at UCL to study immune regulation in disease settings and have spent the years since investigating mechanisms of immune regulation and trying to understand how these can be applied to treat a range of diseases. Most recently, my research has focused on genetic engineering of immune cells with features that make them better at controlling immune responses.