Pathways to STEM

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On the 16th of March 2016 I participated in the Pathways to STEM outreach event at the central library in Mansfield.  Around 300 year 10 pupils from schools in the Mansfield area who had shown interest in STEM subjects at school (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) were invited to come to the library to meet postgraduate students from the University of Nottingham, who brought along examples of, and activities based on, their research.

Two days of training from the UoN Graduate School a few weeks earlier had result in around fifty interested postgrads forming small groups based on shared(ish) research interests, with the aim of creating a short activity for the school pupils to engage with.  At this stage of the process, I initially felt a little discouraged, as my very tenuous links to STEM gave me little common ground with the chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers around me.  I found myself in a group with an agricultural scientist specialising in efficiency in dairy farming, and an engineer working on developing new, non-invasive ways to accurately measure the heart rate of newborn babies.  With such disparate disciplines we opted to share a stand at the event, but develop small activities individually, under the umbrella theme of “What Technology Can Do For Us”.

I found it difficult at first to design a short, fun activity based on my research.  I thought that the most salient application of technology within the areas of Applied Linguistics with which I was most familiar was the use of computerised language corpora to study patterns of language in use.  My initial ideas were to involve the students in the process of corpus creation, perhaps to create a corpus from samples of their own classwork, and then perform some basic analyses of their language use.  However, while this is an intriguing idea, it was too involved for the format of the day.

In the end I settled on the idea of exploring the linguistic phenomenon of collocation.  This is the tendency of certain words to ‘attract’ certain other words, and so co-occur together frequently.  To put it another way, it is the tendency of language users to have ‘go to’ combinations of words which they can pull out and use with minimal mental effort.  The strength of attraction between words varies, but at the high end of the scale are semi-fixed combinations such as ‘torrential rain’ and ‘excruciating pain’.  The development of computerised corpora over the past thirty years or so has facilitated the study of this phenomenon, and the strength of attraction can be quantified using various statistical tests that generate scores; the stronger the connection, the higher the score.

In addition to being a good example of the application of technology in the study of language, I chose to focus on collocation because it is something that all native speakers of a language intuitively understand.  Show any native English speaker a sentence in which the word following ‘torrential’ has been removed, there is a very good chance indeed that they will supply ‘rain’, or possibly ‘downpour’ to fill the gap.  Running with this idea, I thought that I could sell this awareness as a form of mind reading, and the idea for ‘I Can Read Your Mind’ was born.

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Using my newly-acquired powers of telepathy to get the students’ attention, I then wanted to explain a little about the use of computerised corpora to study this, and let them try it out for themselves.  I decided to give the students an adjective chosen at random, and ask them to guess the five words that collocate most strongly with it.  Using an online corpus analysis tool I generated a list of these words from the British National Corpus, a 100 million-word collection of text assembled in the 1990s with the intention of creating a representative sample of modern British English.  I wrote a short computer program that compared the students’ five guesses with the top twenty words from the corpus, and scored each guess according to its rank in the top twenty.  Their total scores would then be recorded on a leaderboard, to add a competitive element to the activity.

My team mates prepared great activities.  Shiemaa brought along her cardiac monitor that allowed the students to see their heart rate in real time simply by holding two light-emitting contacts in their fingertips and go home with a print out of the signal, while Emma prepared a fantastic Monopoly-style game in which students took over the running of a dairy farm for a five-year period, applying various technological methods seeing their effects on feed price and milk yield!  By our final preparatory meeting the week before the event, we were confident we had a good stand.

The day went smoothly and enjoyably.  In two ninety-minute sessions, the students circulated around the large events room at the library, stopping at the different stands and experiencing a range of scientific and technological works-in-progress, from 3D printers, to disease prevention, to optimized growing conditions for plants, to DNA Jenga.  My team’s activities went well, and the students were suitably wowed by my mind-reading powers.  I learned several interesting things, notably that my activity was a little unfair, as some words had very obvious collocating nouns (the girls who got the word ‘healthy’, for example, scored very highly with ‘food’, diet’, ‘lifestyle’ etc.), whilst others had a tendency to take rather more obscure and difficult words.  Furthermore, it was very hard to predict, without looking at the wordlist, which adjectives would be challenging, so even when I became aware of the problem and started pre-selecting adjectives (previously I was using an online random word generator), I still couldn’t guarantee non-zero scores.  Still, most teams seemed to enjoy the activity, and there were several real eye-opening moments.  The team of boys who got the adjective ‘nice’ thought they were being jokers when they wrote down the word ‘guy’… but it turned out to be the top word.

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The event as a whole was a great success, and the organisers passed on the following feedback from students and teachers:

Teacher emails:

I just want to thank you firstly for a fantastic event today. I saw every single student engage in an activity and interact with the people who were leading the activities. It was really good to see them enjoy themselves and for some stretch themselves a little.

Thank you for yesterday I had a thoroughly enjoyable and informative afternoon as did my colleagues and more importantly my students.

Student comments:

I learnt lots about how science effects our world

I learnt lots and all the events were cool

I could see science displayed in different ways to how it is done in school

It was a great opportunity for me to apply my research interests and really gave me a fresh perspective on my work.

 

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