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Features: Faculty Insights


The STIMULUS programme is celebrating 30 years of placing Cambridge University students as volunteers in local schools. Apart from providing teachers with support and volunteers with teaching skills, STIMULUS helps volunteers gain vital life skills, allows pupils to get a glimpse of university life, and forges links between the University and the local community.

STIMULUS is a wonderful thing to get involved in. You won't realise how rewarding it is until you try it. Simon Goorney, STIMULUS volunteer

"As a teacher for over 20 years, I have seen first-hand the enormous benefits of having passionate, knowledgeable young people working with children in schools to inspire the next generation of mathematicians, scientists and engineers," says Jacqui Watkins, the coordinator of STIMULUS. Watkins is the fifth in a dedicated line of STIMULUS coordinators, who have been fulfilling their roles with great success: more than 3,000 local pupils at around 30 schools benefit each year from the 250 or so placements that STIMULUS creates.

What do volunteers do?

STIMULUS provides placements for both undergraduate and postgraduate students to support learning in mathematics, science, technology and computing. The tasks the volunteers take on in the schools vary and are tailored to an individual school's needs. They may provide revision sessions, one-to-one or small group tuition, help around the classroom, or tutor for the STEP exams.

Sarah Foster, a PhD student at the Neuroscience Department, runs an after school coding club at Mayfield Primary School. During one hour each week Foster and another volunteer introduce exercises to the pupils and then help them along in completing them. "We've had a very positive reception, every term we have done it there has been a waiting list for the Code Club," she says. "It's been really nice to see how smart and engaged the kids are, and how enthusiastic they are about learning programming and also maths."

For teachers

STIMULUS volunteers typically only give up one or two hours of their time each week during term time, but for time-pressed teachers their support is invaluable. It can make the difference between being able to offer a particular activity or type of support to students, and not being able to offer it.

Rodrigo Lanza, a newly qualified teacher at Netherhall School, is already building volunteers into his teaching plans for the next academic year. "Next year I will be managing the maths intervention lead in my school," he says. "The idea is to identify students who would benefit from small group work to patch up any holes [in their understanding]. I am already thinking of STIMULUS volunteers in this context, because that's exactly the kind of thing they would be very useful for." It's not so long ago that Lanza was himself a mathematics student at Cambridge, and a STIMULUS volunteer: he graduated in 2016, after having completed a Mathematics Degree and Part III.

Watkins can attest to the popularity of the scheme with teachers, both through formal and informal feedback. The vast majority of teachers (87%) who responded to an evaluation questionnaire would recommend STIMULUS to a colleague. "It's always great to get positive feedback from teachers and student volunteers, especially when the former say that their volunteers have enabled them to do or offer something they couldn't have been able to do or offered without support," she says. "It makes it seems very worthwhile. It's also lovely to hear from students when their placement has been 'the highlight of my week' or when they e-mail to say that they have decided to become a teacher."

For pupils

Pupils obviously benefit from the extra tuition and attention, but it's not all about help with the subject matter. Another express aim of STIMULUS is to provide role models of young scientists, mathematicians and technologists. "A lot of my year 11 students use the opportunity to quiz the volunteers about what it's like being at University," says Edward Roberts-Rayne, Head of Science and Technology at Parkside Community College and also a former STIMULUS volunteer.

Learning science, mathematics and technology at school can be very different from studying the subjects at university and pupils can find it hard to imagine what a career in those subjects might look like. From his own experience as a researcher-turned-teacher Roberts Rayne knows this. "It's very useful for students to get an idea of what scientific research looks like from a day to day perspective," he says. "It also really helps with talking to them about their own careers and aspirations." STIMULUS volunteers, many of whom are postgraduates and already experts in their fields, can help build the bridge between school and university and beyond.

For volunteers

For students toying with the idea of becoming a teacher STIMULUS is a great way of getting a taste of classroom life. Each year several students go on to a PGCE course, participate in the Teach First scheme or in the Students Associate Scheme placements during their vacation. Both Roberts Rayne and Lanza say that their STIMULUS experience fed into their decision to become a teacher, not least because of those special moments every teacher treasures. "That moment when something [a student] struggled with suddenly makes sense and they see it all fit together — that was a really rewarding aspect of volunteering," says Roberts Rayne.

Most STIMULUS volunteers are motivated by the scheme's wider value too: they want to share the enthusiasm for their subject and be part of Cambridge life beyond the university. "I wanted to do something that's outside the university bubble," says Foster. "Something that would have a positive impact on the larger community." Lanza agrees: "It's really easy to get stuck in the university bubble, only talking to other students, so it's really rewarding to be able to give something back to the community." And indeed, creating a link between the university and the wider community has been one of the aims of STIMULUS right from the start.

Another aim is to provide volunteers with skills that will be useful in any career they might choose later on: organisational, communication and leadership skills, and any other skills individual students might need to develop. "It takes quite a lot of confidence to hold the attention of a room full of excitable 11-year-olds," says Foster. "[Speaking in front of an audience] is something I normally avoid like the plague, so having to do that was definitely good for me."

Simon Goorney a third year physics student, is enjoying learning about the pastoral side of working with young people. "Some of the students at the school I was placed at were from different backgrounds from what I was used to and that caused some interesting challenges in terms of dealing with problems they had at home. And classroom romances, that was another one!" he says. "I think the biggest take-away is communication skills. If you can communicate with a rabble of year 10s, I think you can communicate with anyone."

Making it happen

For Jacqui Watkins coordinating STIMULUS involves a lot more than letting students loose in local schools. Apart from liaising with students and schools and arranging the placements, she has to organise training for volunteers, ensure that child protection and legal requirements are implemented, and provide guidance for everyone involved.

Being part of the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP) helps with these tasks. STIMULUS was initiated in 1987 by Professor Kenneth Ruthven and Toni Beardon (who was later awarded an OBE for Services to Education), both from the University's Faculty of Education. STIMULUS started to grow further when, in 1999, it became part of the MMP, a maths education and outreach initiative run jointly by the Faculty of Mathematics and the Faculty of Education and based at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.

"Being part of a bigger project has enabled the programme to go from strength to strength because of the increased networking opportunities when information about school contacts can be shared," says Watkins. "The team is also very supportive in providing subject specific training to volunteers, encouraging the use of NRICH resources and a principled approach to problem solving in maths."

With the support of Watkins, the MMP, the University as a whole, and, most importantly, the volunteers, STIMULUS is now looking forward to at least another thirty years of success. We wish it a very happy birthday and leave you with the words of volunteer Simon Goorney: "STIMULUS is a wonderful thing to get involved in. You won't realise how rewarding it is until you try it."

For more information about STIMULUS and how to get involved, both as a volunteer and as a teacher, visit the STIMULUS website. To find out more about how to support STIMULUS see here.