STEM Summer Placement Scheme

TSTEM-Summer-Placement-Schemehis new initiative, launched recently as a pilot by the University of Birmingham, seeks to inspire students aged 16 to 18 to pursue STEM careers by providing them with 'real' research project experience working in a variety of STEM subjects.

In our first year, 15 AS-level students were recruited from schools and colleges around Birmingham to work with the University’s world leading researchers on six different projects in the Schools of Computer Science, Physics and Biosciences.

As part of their placement, the students, working in small groups or individually, kept a diary/lab notebook, prepared a report and in early September presented their findings to their peers and academics from the University.

The students also had a stand at the University’s Community Day on 7th September 2014 and shared their experiences with visitors to the campus.

Some students have used their placement as an opportunity to attain a British Science Association Gold Crest Award.

British Science Association CREST Awards


CREST is a UK award scheme recognising success, building skills and demonstrating personal achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) project work.  Endorsed by UCAS for inclusion in students’ personal statements – they are well regarded, high-quality and a tangible recognition of success.

You can find out more information about the scheme from the British Science Association website.


Placement Projects 2014

A summary of the projects that formed this year’s scheme are set out below.

Affect of temperature on the survival of potential biological control agents for release in glasshouses

Project host: Nicola White, School of Biosciences.

Students: Hafsa and Jacob

Future food security is of great concern worldwide. Our challenge to feed an increasing population is hindered by many factors including damage to the crop caused by insects. Some insects can be used to protect food from this type of damage. There are a number of experiments which must be completed before a non-native organism can be released into the UK for this purpose. This project contributes towards those experiments aimed at thermal tolerance and the affect it can have on the species.



Factors affecting Measurement of Volatile Organic Compounds in Breath collected in sample bags using a Proton Transfer Reaction Mass Spectrometer

Project hosts: Dr Margaret O’Hara and Raquel Fernandez Del Rio, Molecular Physics Group, School of Physics and Astronomy.

Students: Maryam and Aaron

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are small molecules that easily evaporate and are often responsible for the things that you can smell e.g. perfumes, petrol fumes, the smell of a pine forest. They are also present in human breath, and this is a source of interest to doctors; some VOCs may arise from changes in metabolism as a result of diseases. Tiny amounts of many VOCs in breath can be measured using a very sensitive instrument called a Proton Transfer Reaction Mass Spectrometer (PTR-MS). We are currently working on a project to take breath samples in bags from patients with liver disease at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and bring them back to the lab for analysis on the PTR-MS. We hope to identify VOCs that can be used for diagnosis of liver cirrhosis.



Mechanisms of insect resistance in Lactuca sativa

Project host: Dr Laura Vickers, School of Biosciences.

Students (Group A): Stephie, Trina and Vikram
Students (Group B): Juweria, Isabel and Sonia

Lettuce (lactuca sativa) is one of the most common leafy vegetable crops, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reporting over 23 million tons being produced globally in 2010. With the salad industry growing year by year there is increasing demand on growers to maximise the production of leafy vegetable crops. A significant challenge for the industry is to develop high yielding crops that are resistant to insects. Currently, conventional plant breeding has been the main route to develop new crop cultivars. Unfortunately, conventional breeding doesn’t always discover the mechanisms that make a plant resistant to insects.

We are investigating new crop cultivars and trying to uncover the plant resistance mechanisms to greenfly (aphids). This project will consider whether resistance in some lettuce plants can be attributed to level of the stress phytohormone – ethylene, and if plant resistance is ‘detectable’ by the greenfly.



Equipping Robots with Common Sense about Space and Time

Project host: Dr Lars Kunze, Intelligent Robotics Lab, School of Computer Science.

Students: Maryam and Matty

Today, special-purpose robots are entering our daily lives in forms of vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and more recently telepresence robots. At the same time a new generation of integrated robot systems is under research and development. However, the ability of these robots to perform tasks is still limited, mainly because current control mechanisms are not flexible enough.

For an autonomous mobile robot to perform an open-ended set of human-scale tasks, such as cleaning a table, requires novel ways of programming and controlling robots. We strongly believe that robots that are to accomplish everyday tasks successfully in human environments require ‘common sense’ reasoning capabilities similar to those of humans.

This project investigates how robots can acquire, represent, and use information about space and time in human environments.


Evaluating a metaphor identification and generation system

Project hosts: Professor John Barnden and Dr Andrew Gargett, School of Computer Science.

Student: Davinder

In the GenMeta project, we are seeking to develop a computer system that can produce metaphors in natural language. We speak metaphorically all the time.

In many cases, speaking metaphorically helps express our ideas in a more interesting way and also often helps to make these ideas easier to understand. Metaphor is especially helpful when discussing abstract ideas (such as time). While metaphorical language is very common, it is also quite complex, and it is very difficult building computer systems that can understand and produce metaphor.

The project seeks to evaluate of this system and involves looking at the system’s output and deciding whether the language it uses, for example, “sounds natural”, “is accurate”, “is clear”, etc. In particular, you will help in developing both objective measures of success (e.g. helping in directly evaluating the system’s output using special scoring techniques), and subjective measures (helping in devising and running a survey for users of the system).


Research on cosmic rays using the HiSPARC detector

Project hosts: Dr Cristina Lazzeroni and Dr Maria Pavlidou, School of Physics and Astronomy.

Students: Lewis Anderson and Pip Rudge.

HiSPARC is a project in which secondary schools and academic institutions join forces and form a network to measure cosmic rays with extremely high energy. It offers students the opportunity to participate in real research, with the purpose of finding out more about these mysterious and rare cosmic particles.

The grid of HiSPARC detectors allows for measurement of cosmic rays characteristics, like energy and time of arrival. This project offers the opportunity of a detailed study of energy and provenance of cosmic rays and their correlation with the Sun and seasons.



A Facebook page for the scheme has been set up and it also has the following Twitter hashtag #UoBSTEMScheme.