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A summer of science well spent

By Lauren 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!” 

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