A piece of gee-whiz lab equipment alone won't make a success of a school outreach project. But preparation and participation will enable you to add the wow factor to your field, says Harriet Swain
Here's a brainwave. You've just had a fancy new machine delivered to the lab. If you offered to show it to a load of school children, you'd get to play with it while scoring points with the university's access team.
Great idea - so good that you shouldn't assume you're the first person to think of it.
Schools are regularly approached not only by different universities but by different academic schools within universities, says David Woolley, outreach manager at Nottingham University. If you want to work more closely with them, you have to plan your strategy.
"A lot of academics seem to think that schools will be bowled over to have them there," he says. "They would be, if it were done in a co-ordinated manner." This means academics need to work closely with an institution's widening participation team to make sure that their idea for a school link fits in with what is happening already. It is also valuable to identify and keep key contacts within the schools.
Letting schools know in plenty of time about possible opportunities for visits to an institution is essential, Woolley says. He advises giving secondary schools at least eight weeks' notice so they can get through the necessary bureaucracy and order buses.
Once the pupils arrive for a visit, Woolley says you need to make it interactive. Giving a pared-down version of a first-year lecture is not enough unless the children have the chance to participate. This could be a mock trial in a law programme, a budgeting game for economics, or a chance to see your fancy new engineering machine.
The aim is to make pupils appreciate that they will be able to use resources and take part in activities that would never be possible at school.
Jane Browne, director of post-16 studies at Greenwood Dale School in Nottingham, says academics have to pitch material at the right level.
Students mature a lot during the sixth form, she says, so an activity appropriate for someone about to leave school may not be appropriate for younger pupils. She also warns that they will not be used to overelaborate academic language.
Richard Gould, director of Villiers Park Educational Trust, a charity that aims to create inspirational teaching for 14 to 19-year-olds, says you need to think about ways of involving everybody - not just the children who always speak up. You also need to resist giving your own input at the beginning. "If you do, it's incredibly intimidating because you are so good and knowledgeable that the students are going to feel very second rate," he says.
Gould argues that it is more important to excite young people about your subject than to talk about the syllabus or what it is like to be a student.
On the other hand, you don't want to make university life sound as if it is only fun and games. "You want to inspire them to do the subject but also give a realistic idea of what it is," Woolley says.
John Wright, secretary of the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association and head of student recruitment at Surrey University, says you need to explain what is involved in studying your subject at university level, perhaps by giving examples of interesting projects in which you have taken part, without going into too much detail.
It is also helpful to give a broader view of your subject and the career it can lead to. Deborah Fowler, head of outreach and access at Sheffield University, says organising visits to law courts for pupils interested in law, for example, seems to have more impact than simply visits to the university.
But you don't need to focus too heavily on future employment. Wright says many sixth-formers are less interested in career prospects than in their future social life. By speaking broadly about your subject, you could inspire people who had never thought of it as a career.
Woolley also advises academics to bone up on the A-level curriculum and link a presentation to that. This keeps teachers happy because they appreciate students being given the opportunity to broaden their understanding of A-level topics.
Gould suggests sending out a small amount of preparation work to students in advance, something accessible but also academic.
He says the key is to develop a sense of expertise and an understanding of what being an expert in a particular subject is like. This means adding breadth and depth to the kinds of things they will already be studying at school - setting out rules and then breaking them, introducing a sense of "what if..."
He says university events should encourage pupils to take risks as they will be used to being spoon-fed at school. They should offer them the chance to look for solutions themselves, go off on tangents and develop listening skills.
They should also form only part of a longer term strategy that involves student mentors, visits to parents' evenings and help for teachers. "If universities have excellent outreach and kids go back into schools and the everyday classroom experience is not inspirational, you have a problem,"
Gould says. He suggests holding sessions for teachers at university at the same time as events for pupils.
Woolley says working with other local institutions can be a good idea to ensure that pupils have some kind of higher education contact at least once a year.
Wright says you shouldn't be selling your institution but rather showing enthusiasm for your subject, which means: "Don't slag off the opposition."
For more information
Villiers Park Educational Trust: www.villierspark.org.uk
Higher Educational Liaison Officers Association: www.heloa.ac.uk
Give schools plenty of notice of events
Co-ordinate your school contacts
Make university seem exciting
Understand the age and education level of your audience
Develop and cultivate contacts