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Published: Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Embedding Careers in A level Biology

Jon Hale, Head of Biology at Beaulieu Convent School looks at how to embed careers into the Biology curriculum
 
Following a @STEMLearningUK Insight Placement follow-up CPD day at the Wellcome Building in London last July, I reflected a great deal on my own practice in providing good career guidance to my students.
 
I had been gently suggesting ideas to students thinking about Higher Education, trying to promote the idea of studying a facet of Science rather than only acknowledging Medicine or Healthcare as possible careers.
 
Undoubtedly living in an area with limited STEM industry compared to London or Cambridge as extreme examples, my students were simply unaware of what scientists do for a living.
 
That CPD day focused on meeting the Gatsby Career Benchmarks and the importance of subject teachers in linking the curriculum to careers.
 
It is too easy to say that we don’t have time to teach the curriculum and cover careers as well, or teaching careers is someone else’s job, but on the whole we already do influence the career direction of each and every student, mostly positively by the time they reach A levels.
 
When you consider the number of students that you’ve taught, is there an even/expected distribution across different careers/university courses and destinations or are there significantly more than there should be who go on to study where you studied, doing what you did? Just like @_ScienceCapital the careers guidance young people are exposed to is heavily dependent on their parents and teachers.
 
The 8 Gatsby Benchmarks
 
1 A stable careers programme.
2 Learning from career and labour market information.
3 Addressing the needs of each pupil.
4 Linking curriculum learning to careers.
5 Encounters with employers and employees.
6 Experiences of workplaces.
7 Encounters with further and higher education.
8 Personal guidance.
 
This year I have been trying to embed benchmarks 3, 4, 5 and 6 through my course whilst not ‘losing’ curriculum time.
 
So rather than bolting on a careers lesson to the subject, I have embedded a number of opportunities that allow students to ask the questions they want answered regarding careers in contexts of what we are studying.
 
One of the key indicators of benchmark 3 is how stereotypes are challenged. Although the view of a labcoat-wearing, spectacled white man as the scientist is slowly changing due to television and Netflix, it is still a view maintained by many students.
 
The school I work at is a girls school, with the traditional career aspirations ranging from childcare, midwifery, medicine or zoology (we have a very good zoo on the island) as these are the professions they see women doing.
 
I was fortunate to stumble across @SkypeScientist which, although administered in the USA, has a large number of scientists in Europe eager to speak to students.
 
Our first session was from a Portuguese scientist working in Denmark on a global project on shark conservation. After discussing the specifics of data collection, DNA sequencing and the role of bioinformatics, the students started asking her questions about her journey and what it was like to work in academia.
 
Our second session was another female scientist who was working on the nitrogen-fixing and nitrifying soil bacteria after previously identifying bacteria living around deep sea vents. Again, she was much travelled throughout Europe before gaining a post-doc position in Vienna.
 
In terms of the curriculum enrichment/delivery, this session gave value to learning about the nitrogen cycle but also reviewed sequencing and the use of immobilised antibodies undoubtedly raising their application skills as well as the conceptual knowledge.
 
The last session the Year 13 students received came from an Australian (female) Evolutionary Biology currently working in France. Again she was able to give context to speciation and currency to what is sometimes thought of as Victorian era Science.
 
Beyond the science of these chats, the students delved into the career paths, asking questions that they could then relate to themselves, like subject choices, rationale of decisions, work-life balance, enjoyment, career development, etc.
 
By giving students this opportunity, they are giving a lot more thought to these different career pathways. This has resulted in a few more students considering subjects like Biology and Biochemistry at university this year.
 
It terms of getting the most out of these @SkypeScientist sessions, it does require a little planning and investment from the students to find out what these scientists do and what they need to learn and give these questions to the scientist in advance. The rest of the conversation is rather organic and it is a pleasure to see students actually talking to adults as peers.
 
How many times have you found a good show to watch for teaching something?
 
Do you remember the Panorama: Dying for a biscuit? Or The Truth about GM?
 
The BBC in particular is great at making shows relevant to our A level course, but how many times have you considered talking about the careers involved in these programmes?
 
The Brian Cox School Science videos on YouTube (commissioned by the Royal Society) have a couple of worthwhile episodes that can be dropped into a range of different lessons. Do ignore the premise that these videos are for primary school teachers by not watching any of the first or second episodes for each topic, but three and four are gold.
 
Take the third instalment of Plants, they go to an urban farm in London. There are loads of content links here: Photosynthesis, Sustainability; Nutrient Cycles; Food Chains; Waste Management; Climate Change, and therefore a myriad of opportunities to drop this 3-minute video into a lesson and discuss the scientific roles in making a venture like this possible.
 
There are four Biology based videos in this series with relevant application in industry and current research progressions from broad concepts.
 
Apologies for harping on about being remote, but many schools in the UK have the same issue, we are simply not close enough to universities to get visits to labs, or not close to a research hub.
 
This can make getting students experiences of scientific workplaces difficult but not impossible. I was fortunate enough to get a few places on the Babraham Schools Day in March this year, where students would with scientists on a multitude of different projects in the morning. Although they also received a couple of careers talks from current and former PhD students of the institute, they gained so much from being away from their teachers, friends and family in a workplace, if only for a couple of hours.
 
For some this was a turning point in choosing to continue their scientific careers.
 
I understand that there opportunities are limited, but there are still plenty to be had, especially if those students do not come from a family background of university.
 
For example the British Ecological Society run a free summer school for A level students in Yorkshire. I think it is well worth trying to see what is out there for our students.
 
Most schools will visit a museum, maybe a natural history museum. These provide another great option for experiencing a workplace. The Natural History Museum in London offers a Meet the Scientist slot for 30 minutes and loads of behind the scenes tours for a couple of pounds per head. Many museums offer this for free.
 
I am fully aware that you could provide the best ever careers support, but if you can’t help the students get the grades they need for what you’ve inspired them to do it was a lot of wasted time. That is why I think it is essential to link the curriculum to the careers and not the other way around.
 
I think that by experiencing Biology in action in different aspects of society, students will have greater application skills when it comes to the examinations, but I guess I will have to wait until August to see.