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Getting the full Oxford experience: 38 sixth-form students get stuck in to Engineering

95% of students said their experience would influence their choice of university or degree

School students in workshop

As part of the Department’s outreach programme, 38 sixth formers from all over England and Wales joined us this July for a four-day introduction into the huge and varied world of Engineering Science.

The Headstart university taster course aims to give students with an interest in STEM subjects increased confidence, the ability to make informed decisions about their future and to show how STEM career paths can be accessible and exciting.

Department Outreach and Access Officer Libby McGowan ran games and icebreakers on the first morning to allow the students to settle in and get to know the people they would be spending the next few days with. She says, “We are really pleased with the Headstart intake this year – our largest group to date, the majority of whom are state school students.”

“Thoroughly enjoyed the course, great to understand how the course is split and the intensity of workload and speak to current students.”

After a tour by the Student Ambassadors, lectures and practical sessions were delivered by Department engineers at the Thom Building. The programme included most aspects of the general Engineering course offered at Oxford – electrical, energy, biomedical, aerospace, mechanical and robotics, culminating in a competition to design and build a prototype of wine glass packaging which would not only look attractive on the shop shelf, but also be robust enough to protect against breakage during transport and handling in the shop.

"The games and competitions - such as the design and build competition we did - were fun and also really pushed people to try."

Not all of their time was spent indoors, however – the students went out on company visits to Thames Water and Viridor, where they had tours of the sites and were given an overview of what goes on in an industrial setting. A Thames Water challenge saw them working out how to best deliver water to houses in a model demonstrator, before testing their theories out. At Viridor, which creates energy from waste materials, they met a life-size model dinosaur created entirely using waste materials, before taking a tour of the energy recovery facility, which produces enough electrical power for 38,000 homes every year.

"The lab sessions were interesting and enjoyable; the industry tour was interesting as well."

To get the full Oxford experience, the students stayed in undergraduate accommodation at St John’s College and also visited Wadham and St Edmund Hall colleges. They were hosted by Harris Manchester for a formal Oxford college dinner and ‘bop’ (which, we are reliably informed, is a Big Organised Party). Evenings were spent in ghostly tours of the city, crazy golf and competitive games with some of our Student Ambassadors.

"The evening activities were also fun, and great at encouraging people to make new friends."

1st year Engineering student Daffodil Dhayaa (Wadham College) said, ‘Seeing the students’ passion and creativity for engineering evolve during the week, helping them to understand what engineering was and seeing their enthusiasm for the subject grow, put a huge smile on our faces. One girl said to me, ‘I really didn’t think I’d enjoy taking apart an engine but that lab really surprised me, I found it really cool!’ It was great to watch the students surprise themselves and learn more about engineering, and be able to integrate the students into life at Oxford’.

“I learned a lot about engineering, which I didn't really have any experience in before. For example I now have a better understanding of how different the subgroups of engineering are.”

In a new addition to the programme this year, parents were invited to attend a wrap-up meeting at the end of the course to see what the students had been involved in during the week. Libby says, “Most of the students arrived uncertain what they would be applying to study at university. The Headstart course really gave them an insight into the exciting world of Engineering, and several of them said they now had a definite idea of what to apply for”.

She adds, “Outreach activities like Headstart are so important in demystifying the Oxford experience for prospective students, and they are a fun way to get to know more about a varied subject like Engineering”.

“I loved the course, it was very interactive and educational. I learnt so much and had a taste of all the topics I want to do in the future. It really helped me decide.”

Some of the students who took part commented they would now definitely apply to study Engineering. One says, “I wasn't 100% sure whether or not engineering was for me but through doing the practicals and taster lectures, I now definitely want to do it”. Another said the course “encouraged me to study a STEM subject, although I was previously unsure”.

The students have now returned to their summer breaks, but Libby has been hard at work with another outreach activity, the UNIQ Summer School, a five day free residential course available solely to state school students. The UNIQ programme follows a slightly different programme covering the same topics as the Headstart course.


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School students in workshop using balloons
Sketched out diagram on notepad
Group of school students, one holds up balloon project
Student placing balloon project on scales infront of classmates
School student places handmade project on scales infront of classmates
Excited school students in workshop
Large group of school students surrounding workshop benches
Student looking at robot
two students looking at a computer
Group of school students in safety wear infront of a robot t-rex
Big group of students at long dining table
Student sat at computer giving thumbs up to camera
Large group of students on walking tour of Oxford
Group of students looking at many small robots