Jon Wood

Jon Wood is a ‘Psychology Technician’ at Aston University and also ‘Science Communicator’ at JonWoodScience. Here, he talks about his experiences as a STEM Ambassador and why he chose to become involved.

How did you first become interested in STEM as a career?

From the first time I tried to remove all the iron filings from the garden with a magnet I found, I knew that science was my future. It was days before my parents found me at the end of the garden with a jam jar of iron rubbish. I then heard these funny grains of material were bits of meteorite and I was unstoppable. The perennially ‘cool’ space and astronomy was living in my garden. My father showed me how to make an electromagnet using a battery, wire and a nail. To this day, my mother’s cutlery still comes out of the drawer en masse. What I would later learn to be ‘physics’ was my new cool tool for interesting stuff.

At junior school I had a fascination for all elements of the natural world, supported by the enthusiasm of my parents who constantly provided opportunity for turning over rocks by the canal, pond dipping or trying to identify the wildlife around me. It was also at junior school that the new headmaster invested in a TRS-80 computer, on which I first experimented with programming BASIC. I liked the logic and feeling of seeing ‘cause and effect’ in action. But despite early adopters being marginalized as geeky; in my eye, technology quickly joined the ‘cool’ list too. While at senior school this interest went further as I learned to program on my home computer, a ZX Spectrum, the principles of which help me adopt an analytical and methodical approach. As an icon of personal importance to my personal development, my Spectrum is still on display in my home.

The credit for the science highlights of my secondary school education (an unremarkable community school), go to Mr. Chamberlain who introduced me to chemistry. His passion for the subject showed in the detail he put into his blackboard experiment diagrams. I always appreciated this as I was raised in a home where architectural drawings were always lying around. I still loved physics because of the girl who sat opposite me but now chemistry became ‘cool’ too.

I couldn’t take biology as a GCSE because I wanted to do design technology, which allowed me to learn electronics and some engineering principles, under the tutorage of Mr. Metcalfe. He looked the engineer with his trimmed beard and calm concentration. People who designed and built things had always had my respect from when I first dismantled and rebuilt an old water pump that my father had given me. But there was time for me to learn biology and experience would again be one of the best drivers for learning I could ever hope for.

What pathway did you follow to get where you are?

As the first year to take GCSEs, I took the maximum eight and got all grades, ‘B’s and ‘C’s. But from there, my path is not a usual one. I eschewed taking A-levels to work for two years, but it meant I had a car before my peers had gone back to start their AS levels. However, science still beckoned and I began work as a Medical Laboratory Assistant in the Microbiology department of the Manor Hospital in Walsall.

Despite this being a ‘non-career’ post, they kindly allowed me to do a day release course. Hence, I gained a BTEC National Certificate in Science and got enough of an introduction to biology and physiology to rate it fascinating. This was enough to get me onto an accredited degree course at the University of Wolverhampton where I undertook a BSc in Biomedical Science, a pre-requisite for state-registration of Biomedical Scientists. During these courses, I continued looking at other branches of science and continued to join dots between them, even to the extent that my honours project touched on psychological elements. So, after 10 years, I left medical microbiology to join the psychology technical team at Aston University, Birmingham.

Here I found opportunity to support research, gain experience in teaching and achieve certification for it too. While outreach opportunities fell to the academic staff to deliver, these activities had to compete with their heavy work schedules and I was asked to deliver some aspects for the department’s contribution to a summer school. I secretly enjoyed it more than my other teaching and within a couple of years, I was delivering upwards of 25 outreach sessions for the university annually.

In fact I enjoyed it so much that this is now chiefly the direction in which I am driving my career. In January 2011 I started to widen my network of fellow practitioners and in April 2012 formally registered a business for all my STEM activities, many undertaken outside of my regular employment. Aside from the joy I get from performing and teaching, one of its aims is to empower ambassadors, through training and advice, to impart their enthusiasm in the most creative, inspirational and effective way.

What inspires you about your work and/or about STEM?

For my own STEM activities, I gain inspiration from a number of sources. Never underestimate experiencing how other ambassadors go about their craft; seeing how they breakdown and demonstrate the fundamental and often complex aspects of our universe. Other inspiration comes to me from the vast history we have available to draw on. I love how simple the early forays into experimentation were conducted, often from the romantic period and that of the enlightenment. It often makes me wonder why it took us so long to grasp these elegant and beautiful fundamental principles as I demonstrate their simplicity.

Why did you decide to become an Ambassador? 

I became an ambassador for two real reasons. Firstly, it is easier to work alongside a huge network of like-minded people who understand the importance of the work they do.
Secondly, it is about the opportunity pupils have to experience science for themselves. I feel fortunate in how my pathway has unfolded and it all starts with something simple that made me go ‘wow’ but I never thought I would get to experience the things I have done in my career. If someone had come into my school and said, “I’m going to show you something cool” then my life might have taken a different path. If I could be an inspiration to one mind then who could want more?

On average, how much time do you comitt to STEM Ambassador Activities?

I work full time in a university and they support my ambassador activities up to a point. However, I love doing STEM ambassador activities and rarely decline them. Sometimes the activities can spread over a few days, such as at the Big Bang Fairs and similar festivals. Yet, others can just take an hour. Remember that you can share something inspirational in two minutes and sometimes, that’s all that is needed.

Describe the latest activity you were involved in: What do you feel were the positive outcomes for the pupils?

The last few months have been over the festival season. I spent three days at the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, demonstrating for the British Psychological Society but also for the BBC, with the Bang Goes The Theory team. This latter opportunity came from a STEMnet call on Twitter for volunteers to assist in the BBC interactive area. It wasn’t long before I was found science busking behind ‘Dr. Yan’s table’. Many further opportunities have arisen from this as I have continued with them on tour around the UK, culminating at the Cheltenham Science Festival, which also involved a little ‘celebrity wrangling’.

I recently joined the Royal Society of Chemistry as a volunteer at the West Midlands Big Bang fair. With nothing but kitchen equipment and ingredients from the pantry I demonstrated how we examine the properties of the gases around us. Working with other teams often means that somebody has already carried out risk assessments and the sourcing equipment so following simple guidelines relieves much of the preparatory work. After a short briefing on these matters, it is a delight to focus on the demonstrating.
Undertaking your own activities is equally rewarding but harder work. For instance, I delivered the opening session at a sixth form conference where I demonstrated how resonance works on many levels from the nuclei up. Rather than this being a busking method where you aim to demonstrate quickly, this session required a theme to be developed with interactive demonstrations at regular intervals to highlight the applications of the theory. Of course, when you undertake your own activities, it becomes your responsibility to organise your equipment and safety. Ask questions of the hosts, do they have a sockets, projector, laptop, table, chairs or space? What do you need? What items are you bringing with you that require set up and how long will it take? You need to think of everything and ask every question.

As your activity is about STEM then students should learn something from it, you are not just there to entertain. Often your personality and approach will put something in a way that their teacher has not and this different perspective from a stranger often commands an unparalleled respect from them. As you are not there to test them, students will often learn while they feel they are being entertained. The most recent quote I heard from a pupil was that, “This is the best day at school EVER!” and yet the activities were simple, hands-on chemistry that they had likely already covered in class.

What do you feel were the positive outcomes for yourself?

Just because being an ambassador is inevitably voluntary, this does not mean the rewards are not immense. At a recent fair I finished by talking to a small group of pupils about their future STEM careers, when one pupil came and said that in ten years time, he wanted to be standing where I was and he wanted to teach me something. This has been one of my most favourite experiences so far, in realizing the positive outcomes of the work of a STEM ambassador. To see one person glimpse a positive view of their own future in STEM is reward enough.

Do you have any tips for future STEM Ambassadors?

  • Learn to perform. You don’t have to be on stage, but feel poised and assured when you talk. Remember that you usually know more about the activity than those you are teaching. The character is ‘you’, so be yourself. The plot is the story of your subject, so feel confident enough to tell it well.
  • Start small and don’t be overly ambitious. Maybe develop a single activity and learn to perform it well but flexibly. If you focus on a particular discipline it isn’t hard to string a series of small activities together that vaguely follow a theme. It is often how you package your activities that will appeal to students.
  • The right amount of preparation is the key. Too little rehearsal and you are tied to notes or just appear disorganized. Focus too much on delivering set pieces and you won’t have flexibility in your delivery when faced with questions or when experiments go wrong.
  • Look at your history books and refocus on what you actually need to demonstrate a scientific principle well. Start accumulating pieces of very simple kit that can be used interactively. Think of household objects that your pupils can acquire and replicate your demonstration at home.
  • Communication is dialog, meaning it is two-way. Don’t stand at the front of a room and talk at them; ask them questions and lead discussion with your audience. Pupils will have views so respond to them; don’t just hear, listen. Get close to them by walking around the room. Sit with your audience and deliver your session from their viewpoint.
  • If you have slides then keep them very simple and use as little text as possible. Consider just a picture as being your cue to talk about the topic rather than have a page of text explaining it. Use a remote slide advancer to get away from your laptop.
  • Make time to develop and deliver your activities. You will make sacrifices, maybe in terms of some of your annual leave, but the rewards of immense.

Are there any other nuggets of information or advice that you would like to express (either to potential Ambassadors or young people)?

Find and join the networks of people who are ambassadors, advocates or who share a passion for science communication. They are usually delighted to tell you their story and I still find inspiration from talking to fellow practitioners. Recently Professor Jim Al-Khalili told how his colleagues tried to dissuade him from devoting time to public engagement and science communication. Yet now, he reflects that he still teaches and researches but the remainder of his time is spent in the thrill of public engagement activities rather than sitting on a committee for something or other. It doesn’t matter what stage of your career you are at, there are rewards in being a STEM ambassador.

I’ve been given the opportunity to tell you my story and I hope it may inspire you to consider how a STEM role can be your future career or, if you already work in a STEM discipline, what you can do with it. Happy is the man paid to do his hobby.