The following is a guest post by Gerald Haigh, reporting on the successes of the recent Science & Innovation Week at Sevenoaks School, Kent.
Most schools have special weeks of some kind – arts, science, technology. Not many, I guess will play host to the De Lorean car from ‘Back to the Future’, the ‘Bloodhound’ Supersonic Car project, ‘Star Wars’ characters and a host of spectacular science and engineering presentations, all available free to schools across the South East and beyond.
I’d heard from people in Microsoft about the annual Innovation Week hosted by Sevenoaks School, a Microsoft Associate Showcase School, which aims to give as many young people as possible from local schools an exciting and curriculum-related experience of STEM subjects.
The event, which has been held for seven consecutive years, steadily growing in scope and impact, is the brainchild of the school’s Director of Innovation and Excellence and Head of Science and Technology Graeme Lawrie, who is also a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE). Graeme is driven by the desire to share and open up the superb facilities which are a feature of Sevenoaks School.
‘Teachers see them and say they wish they had all this. Our facilities are unused a lot of the time, so it just made sense.’
When I spoke to Graeme immediately after this year’s event, he opened with what must have been something of an understatement.
‘The week was a busy one.’
Then he gave the figures.
‘We saw through just over ten thousand people, including almost nine thousand children, across the five days. We hosted about 200 school groups.’
In fact 35 schools brought parties of 100 or more pupils, and some brought the whole school in relays through the week. (880 places were assigned to Sevenoaks students from KS3,4 and 5).
There was plenty to see and do. Innovation Week activities aim to be motivational and fun, while at the same time reflecting the current and future curriculum requirements across all key stages from 3 to 18, This year Graeme’s report lists 41 activities.
‘From full shows in our main theatre with 400 seats available, workshops with Young Engineers, Cambridge Coding Academy, Founders for Schools, Bloodhound SSC, BBC micro: bit supported by Microsoft, The London and Barts Trauma Team surgery simulator and several exhibitions including Star Wars and the original DeLorean Time machine from the ‘Back to the Future’ film series.
‘There were parents’ sessions in robotics and physics, run in the evening, with cheese and wine, and the final Friday evening featured a family performance from ‘The Experimentrics’ science theatre group.
The whole school is always involved – The Student Marketing Team worked with the school’s own Head of Marketing, and students were heavily engaged as marshals and guides. All teaching staff were committed, not least by covering the classes of colleagues more directly involved in planning and running the Week.
It’s clear to me, though, that the story of Sevenoaks School’s Innovation Week is about drive, vision and, most of all, an exceptional level of organisational flair. A year or so ago, for example, Graeme approached His Royal Highness the Duke of York, knowing of his role in promoting trade and entrepreneurship. This led first to coffee at Buckingham Palace, and then to Graeme spending the year on secondment to the Duke’s office at the Palace, and to a link between the Innovation Week and ‘IDEA’ – (‘Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award’) founded by the Duke of York and the Nominet Trust. As a consequence, 3556 of the students visiting Innovation Week went away with points towards IDEA Open Badges.
Graeme has always been determined that Innovation Week will be free of charge for students attending, so that it’s accessible for all children and schools. It’s a policy which means putting a lot of energy into fundraising.
‘But there are lots of funds out there,’ says Graeme. ‘It just takes time to fill in the forms. I’ve been to meetings with big sponsors who have found it difficult to get their funds into education.’
Now, the popularity and sheer efficiency and educational quality of the event ensures its continuing success. This year the available places – dictated by the amount of sponsorship – were filled rapidly, and a waiting list of 2,000 students was created to cover later withdrawals and no-shows.
Educationally, the event reaches well beyond the obvious connections with the STEM curriculum.
‘We call it hidden learning… So when children play on a simulator to save a life, they are doing real biology and also learning about careers. And when did a space station link in 2011 we had quite a few students change their courses to Russian, maths and physics.’
And that, of course, is without taking account of the learning experiences that come with working in a different environment, with real-life experts, alongside other students from a range of backgrounds.
This year, Microsoft had a significant presence at the Sevenoaks School Innovation Week, introducing the BBC micro:bit to students and also through their support of the Industry Endorsed Digital IDEA badges. Sevenoaks is a Microsoft Associate Showcase School, aiming for full Showcase status, and it seems certain that Microsoft involvement in the Innovation Week will increase over time.
– Gerald Haigh