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09 4 2019

NCI Agency staff members volunteer to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers

A group of science-inclined pupils at the British School of the Netherlands stay after school each Thursday to run experiments and explore scientific queries.

Three staff members from the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency volunteer their time to deliver a club focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) topics. Through the club, the staff members hope to inspire a new generation of students to study science and engineering. Thanks to their time and dedication, the STEM club concluded a successful fifth term, and will start a sixth in September.

Simon Else, a software engineer, first started mentoring students when he was working at Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy. After joining the Agency in 2016 as a Software Engineer, Else decided to do the same thing again at the British School in the Hague.

"We know there's a lack of children entering STEM topics," Else said. "As engineers and scientists, this club gives us the opportunity to inspire the imagination of the children in a practical way."

Else started the club in the Netherlands with fellow NCI Agency Software Engineer Emre Erdogan.

"We tried to design five lessons to begin with, to do something interactive with the kids," Erdogan said. "You can't just stand up and talk to them for an hour because they get bored."

Last year Tamsin Moye, a Senior Scientist in Cybersecurity at the Agency, joined the team. The students' science teacher also helps deliver the club, discipline the classroom and work as a fellow scientist during the experiments.

Attending a STEM club run by two female scientists and two male engineers helps the students identify potential role models.

"If we as a society are going to go for gender equality, we should start with the children," Moye said. "And we should show them it's cool for both genders to do science and engineering."

The club has followed the children for five terms as they have grown up. This year the students were between ten and 11 years old.

The sixth term will focus again on six and seven-year-olds. The term that focused on younger students nearly achieved gender parity.
However, the percentage of girls who attended dropped as the students got older.

"If we work with really young children, we can get gender parity," Moye said. "The junior school age is when we start biasing our kids."

The club gives students a chance to do hands-on activities such as wooden bridge building, astronomy, rocket launching and gravity exploration.

"The topic actually doesn't matter that much. I think mostly what matters is how you approach them, and how you design the lesson," Erdogan said. "If you can give them something to do with their hands and let them explore, they are much more engaged."

NCI Agency staff members volunteer to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers

Else has two children in school, and his son attended the club. Erdogan, who also has a daughter in a different school, tried to interest her in science before beginning to help Else with the STEM club.

"I tried to not just study with her, but enjoy the way the world works with her, to play games like this," Erdogan said. "I was partially successful, partially unsuccessful. And I was struggling with these thoughts of how to engage a child to get them interested in practical science."

Popular activities last term at the STEM club were bridge building and water rockets. The bridges were built out of lollipop sticks, and stress tested until they broke.

The children also made pressurized water rockets out of two-litre coke bottles. The students built fins for them after learning about the dynamics of why fins help rockets fly straight.

Moye, who has a Master in Astrophysics, was also able to draw on her background when teaching the children. The water rocket exercise, for example, included some lead in exercises to acquaint students with the physics behind the experiment.

"We did a whole series of little lessons about some of the key physics principles behind how rockets work before we actually got them into building the rockets and the launchers," Moye said.

During one such lesson, Moye showed the students an illustration of a rocket being launched into space.

"One of the children put his hand up and said, 'Your picture is wrong because we don't launch rockets from the poles; we launch them from the equator!'" Moye said. "I was super impressed that a ten-year-old would understand the science on that level. It's absolutely incredible sometimes, the level of knowledge already in children at this age."

For the first time last term, students experimented with metre-high model trebuchets built from scrap wood.

The Agency team designed and built trebuchet kits over a weekend, and two groups of students assembled them during their Thursday club. The trebuchets were able to shoot tennis balls across their sports field.

The students were even excited by the assembly process.

"I don't think many people use tools to build things with their kids at home," Erdogan said. "One of the kids, when we gave him an electric screwdriver, said 'I feel like a god! I can put everything together!'"

The club doesn't charge a fee, and Else, Erdogan and Moye, who create the lessons, try to plan activities that use common materials the kids can find at home. With things like wooden sticks or coke bottles, the students can recreate the experiments whenever they want.

"As practising engineers and scientists, we give the children the opportunity to enjoy science and engineering as we do ourselves," Moye said.