STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is needed and, more importantly, STEM is wanted. The former is obvious, because many countries like the United Kingdom or the United States have been taking action in promoting these subjects and improving the teaching quality in need of more people studying STEM since 2015. The latter has been proved by the success of companies such as WATS.ON. Their startup, “The Curiosity Box”, has shown how fascinated children are by science and that the demand exists. For a week I was a part of this exciting STEM outreach project, i.e. the Curiosity Box, creating a product that would meet the needs of curious children, leaving them inspired to do science.
The aim of the company WATS.ON is to promote STEM subjects to people of different backgrounds and ages and, as a result, to positively influence the world of STEM and the world in general. They strive for this in many ways, from helping out scientific associations or societies with management, to doing hands-on science workshops for kids at schools. One of their projects is The Curiosity Box.
The Curiosity Box has a similar aim, but is more focused on children. Each month the subscribers of the Curiosity Box receive a themed box, which includes experiments and activities for the children to do, a piece of simple scientific equipment for them to collect and a featured role model scientist (called the “Curiosity Champion”) for them to look up to.
In detail, there are three different activities pertaining to the theme with instruction cards and appropriate tools in the box. Most of the activities are scientific, like building a rocket, but some of them are crafts related, like making a glitter globe (it’s a snow globe but with glitter). The pieces of scientific equipment are things like a magnifying glass and a ruler – all the basics needed for a science lab.
The Curiosity Champion is usually a young PhD student or postdoc whose field of research is related to the box theme. The Curiosity Box features Champions who disrupt the common perceptions of scientists. No fuzzy hair or square eyeglasses! In addition, they don’t necessarily have to be the ones who used to get top marks, or have done science all of their lives. Diversity is also very welcome.
“The Cosmic Blast Off Box”, “The Cool Crystals Box” and “The Super Strength Box” are just a few of the boxes the startup is offering. The names pretty much speak for themselves, and the adjectives “cool”, “super” and “cosmic” are sure to grip a 7-year-old’s attention. To be honest, probably slightly older peoples’ as well! I have to admit that I did consider quite a few times buying one of these boxes for myself.
The experience at the internship was great. The hours were flexible so I had an incentive to work as productively as possible so I could go home early having done much. The office had lots of drawers around containing the most random stuff (like a drawer full of just sugar, or lolly sticks, milk bottle lids, bags of glitter, etc.), and colourful balls representing planets hanging from the ceiling as decorations, so all of this created a cozy and cheerful atmosphere. What’s more, it was in the town of Eynsham, which was a lovely treat for my eyes every morning when going to work and every afternoon when leaving work.
My task was to create a box from scratch only given one thing; a theme, which was vacuums. First of all, I had to come up with ideas for three activities, and then write the instructions for them in a language comprehensible to a 7-year–old. Obviously, this took me back to when I was such an age, and the atmosphere of the office resonated well with the mood. Therefore coming up with fun ideas was a piece of cake. The activities I came up with seemed fun; however, they weren’t purely vacuum related, rather more “the lowest air pressure achievable at home without an industrial vacuum pump” related. For instance, one of the activities was sucking the air out of a jar with a big syringe and watching the marshmallow in the jar increase in size as a result. It’s not exactly a vacuum that is created in the jar. Nevertheless, the result was basically the same as it would have been if we had produced a vacuum in the jar, so I’m hoping I will be forgiven for this inaccuracy.
After that, I had to get on with more serious businesses, that is I had to source the items for my box, which was a bit more challenging, and even surprising at times. This was because I had to find where to buy very specific things wholesale, for example, pipettes, syringes or marshmallows. Bulk buying the first two is probably reasonable enough, but who could bulk buy 1kg of marshmallows? To my surprise, the Internet had many marshmallow options to offer.
Finally, when the lists of “items you will need for this experiment” on the instruction cards were filled, I had to find three candidates for the one and only Curiosity Champion of Vacuums. Finding someone who does their research on vacuums these days was probably the most challenging part of the internship. The world seemed to be empty, or a vacuum, of such people, so I began to look for scientists who simply work with vacuums. I ended up with candidates who work with vacuum chambers at NASA. Finding people who would disprove the common stereotypes was surprisingly easy. Fuzzy hair or square eyeglasses are very rare these days among scientists. There was much diversity, too, so the fact that science is for everyone was obvious.
These ideas might be turned into a proper box in the future, with a few improvements from the Curiosity Box team. If it is, I will be sorted with Christmas present ideas for the children of my relatives for several years ahead. To be honest, that’s going to be the case even if it isn’t. The activities are entertaining, and most importantly the message is encouraging: science is for everyone. The curiosity of the children is fulfilled, the inspiration to pursue STEM subjects is given and hopefully, the needs of society for more scientists should be met.