From Law to War — Chris Jefferson on the ‘Science of Flight’ and ‘Edutainment’
We met with Chris Jefferson, the Founder and Director of ‘Sci-Hi Education’, to discuss the necessity for contextual, relevant and immersive STEM experiences for young people.
How did you get into STEM? Tell us how Sci-Hi Education came about.
I originally trained as a lawyer, and was a somewhat reluctant law student. Back in the 90’s, a law degree was seen as a good universal degree to have, even if you didn’t want to practice law. On “advice”, that career path took precedence over my preferred option — war studies. Having graduated and worked in law firms, office life did not particularly appeal to me, I took the plunge and became a postman to help pay the bills and figure out where the road less travelled would take me!
I spent five years working for Young Enterprise, an educational charity. My role was originally focused on raising funds to develop and deliver their educational programmes to young offenders in PRU’s and young people identified as NEET (not in education, employment or training). It was from this role that I began developing engaging and interesting educational materials. I got a buzz from delivering programmes, observing their impact and trying to find ways to improve them. I carved out a role for myself as the main programme presenter in the East of England, often presenting day long programmes to entire year groups of either primary or secondary school students. I found that the vast majority of students simply did not know, or were unaware of, the multitude and variety of jobs and career opportunities that were out there. I was always thinking, there must be a better way to do this.
Then, my dream job came up at IWM Duxford as the STEM Education Manager. I have always loved history, and in particular the history of war. Not the blood and guts, pain and sacrifice, but the machines and technology that made the difference between winning or losing. IWM Duxford’s remit was to help explain the causes and consequences of warfare and to make stories of individuals relatable. IWM Duxford is one of the largest aviation museums in Europe and has a vast collection of aircraft and machines. My wonderful boss allowed me to develop the STEM offer and make it engaging, interesting and exciting. It needed to be hands-on, interactive and not just a stand up lecture format.
Therefore, we commissioned a model maker to produce a 1:3 scale World War One aeroplane — the DH9, which operated from Duxford in 1918. It looked amazing, and it became a valuable tool to demonstrate how an aircraft is constructed and works; it became the platform for the ‘Science of Flight’ and it was hands-on learning at its best. I also developed a B-29 Superfortress model and accompanying mission programme using the historical flight and technical manuals of the time. After six months of designing, I almost felt that I could take off and navigate the real aircraft myself!
The STEM offer at Duxford became a great success. However, a change of culture and managerial thinking, combined with budgetary restraints meant that the educational offer was reviewed and ultimately reduced. It was one of the saddest days of my life when I left Duxford, but I had managed to secure a position at the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Aerodrome as their Educational Officer. I worked there for nine months, before I took the plunge and founded Sci-Hi Education.
What is the aim of Sci-Hi Education?
“Edutainment”. It is to make an educational experience as fun, interesting, engaging and thought provoking as possible.
One of the key aims we have is to promote awareness of STEM careers and to show how science and technology has shaped the course of history. We want to inspire young people to appreciate the history of technological developments and how ‘old’ tech is still relevant today. For example, modern day renewable energy wind turbines harness the wind and can change the angle of the turbine blades to work at optimum efficiency. This variable pitch technology was introduced into the RAF Spitfire’s and Hurricane’s just before the Battle of Britain. A practical demonstration, using my Hurricane’s’ propellers, hopefully gets people to look at 21st Century technology in a new light. Nearly every major component of the Hurricane can be explored: from armour plated glass to high octane fuels, from the radio systems to the radiator and cooling systems, from aerodynamics to the truss structure of the rear fuselage. At Sci-Hi Education, we aim to develop the proven educational concept of using large scale interactive models to really engage, inspire and explain the science of machine technology. We want to explore how historical machines still have relevance today and inform young people about how their interests and passions can lead to a rewarding career in STEM.
We believe it is essential to understand the fundamentals of how things work first and then explore specific areas of STEM in more depth. Understanding how things work enables us to understand the experience of others and develop new ideas. For example, we can appreciate what impact machines had on someone’s experience of war. Aeroplanes may look similar to each other, but if you were an RAF pilot in World War Two and you were posted to a Defiant squadron, you might as well have contacted the local undertaker. Whereas, it was a different story for a Spitfire pilot. The Defiant had no forward firing guns and a heavy manned gun turret behind the pilot. The concept was that it would fly alongside bombers and the gunner would train the gun turret at its target. A promising idea in theory, but in practice the extra weight impeded speed and maneuverability; it made the Defiant easy pickings for enemy fighters. This conceptual difference essentially made the Defiant a flying death trap for the brave crews on daylight missions during the Battle of Britain.
We also want to encourage people to learn from their mistakes. Therefore, we use hands-on activities and experiments to enable young people to test their ideas, record their results and reflect on the outcomes they achieve.
What does Sci-Hi Education currently provide?
We deliver bespoke and immersive STEM sessions, with a focus on combining science, technology and history for both primary and secondary school students. We also deliver programmes to youth groups, such as scouts and guides and focus on aviation badges. During the summer, we visit airshows and heritage festivals to show-off our model via mini presentations and provide art and craft activities for families.
In schools, we always aim to fit in with what a particular cohort requires. Our sessions can run from 90 minutes to three hours to a whole day. We work with individual classes, as well as whole year groups and our sessions can be used as part of enrichment day activities, to start or end a new topic (such as the study of World War Two) or simply as a means to engage young people in STEM.
A standard session would be our ‘Science of Flight’ package. We aren’t just focused on aeroplanes though. We also investigate gliders, balloons and rockets — it’s all about putting history into context — and the Hurricane was armed with rockets, so we can digress neatly into the history of rockets. I love cherry picking for students what I hope are interesting factoids. For example, during the history of flight session we show a picture of Wan Hu, the Chinese rocket scientist circa 2000 BC, who strapped 47 homemade rockets to his chair in a bid to get to the moon. With a large audience watching the rockets were lit, there was a big explosion and he was never seen again! Some people believed he got to the moon, which is where many believe the phrase, “I can see the man on the moon” came from.
Often overshadowed by the more famous Spitfire, I chose the Hawker Hurricane as a tool to aid learning for a number of reasons. It was the world’s first 300+ m.p.h fighter aircraft. It had an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage, incorporated streamlining and of course had the wonderful Rolls Royce Merlin Engine. It was robust, highly maneuverable and easy to repair. Moreover, it operated in theatres across the world: from the green fields of England, to the African deserts, to the Russian Artic tundra, to the jungles in the Far East and even launched of merchantmen ships in the North Atlantic. It was the all purpose aeroplane; it carried machine guns, tank busting cannons, bombs, rockets, cameras and more. It did all the hard work without recognition.
“Quite simply, without the Hawker Hurricane, Britain would have lost the Battle of Britain, and arguably lost the Second World War.” — Chris Jefferson, Sci-Hi Education.
The star of our show is invariably building the giant Hawker Hurricane model (it has a 14 foot wingspan and around 46 different components to join together) and in doing so students learn the names of parts, materials, processes and the fundamentals of engineering within context. We also use a range of other hands-on craft experiments, such as making a fuselage using art straws and 3D printed joiners, depending on the length of the session. It is important to us at Sci-Hi Education to provide a variety of STEM activities to appeal to all interests and abilities. Therefore, we also use mathematics, which sometimes I feel can be neglected in the STEM educational experience. We are developing a course on the mathematics of the Battle of Britain. We use historical documents as mathematical challenges and include angles, fractions and mental arithmetic, which were all very important when trying to estimate the range and deflection of an enemy target.
What do you think of the current STEM education on offer in UK schools?
I know there is a great determination to make STEM more mainstream, schools provide science clubs and other extra-curricular activities and there are a lot of companies sponsoring projects and competitions. However, I think there needs to be more of a drive to put STEM into context, to demonstrate how the STEM subjects can lead to a wide variety of skilled, rewarding and interesting career paths. In particular, STEM needs to be more accessible to women and I think this is gradually happening.
I am aware of limitations in the current STEM curriculum, such as a lack of knowledge about jobs in certain sectors. For example, there are many types of jobs within engineering that people don’t realise exist. The most common example I use, are the credits at the ending of a film. You might think of a career in the film industry and go “ I know nothing about acting, or photography or sound design or directing” so that is not for me. Yet if you watch all of the film credits, there are hundreds of different occupations involved in making a film. I still don’t know what a best gaffer is, but someone does and that is their job.
STEM education needs to link more explicitly to people’s abilities, interests and aspirations, whilst demonstrating ways to apply STEM skills in real-world contexts. People need ongoing guidance about which skills to focus on and develop in order to have a successful STEM career.
To find out more about what Sci-Hi Education has to offer, including prices and availability, please visit their website: www.sci-hi.education or contact Chris Jefferson directly: firstname.lastname@example.org / 07947 838490.
Oxbridge Inspire delivers innovative STEM education and provides guidance and inspiration to young people wishing to pursue STEM subjects at University and beyond. To find out more about Oxbridge Inspire and the courses and activities we offer, visit our website.