About the organisation
Cambridge Science Centre (CSC) is the only year-round interactive science centre for children, young people and families in the East of England. Our aim is to break down barriers to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and to show future generations that no matter what their socioeconomic background, gender or ethnicity, STEM is exciting, inclusive and can be ‘for them.’
Parts of the East of England rank amongst the most deprived in the country, particularly in education, skills and training. These areas have low rates of participation in higher education and low social mobility; even parts of Cambridge itself have social mobility ‘cold spots’.
Employment opportunities in East Anglia, which are crucial in breaking this cycle of deprivation, increasingly rely on a skilled workforce. The region has the highest level of investment from the technology sector in Europe but young people are unlikely to benefit from the opportunities that this sector has to offer without the requisite level of education in STEM subjects.
The ‘new normal’ emerging from the COVID-19 crisis will also be increasingly dominated by the STEM sector and see a heavy reliance on matching the skills agenda with the needs of the future UK economy.
What challenges were you trying to address?
On Friday 13 March, we welcomed more than 60 young learners on a school visit. The following day saw government requirements to close schools and public locations, and the introduction of social distancing and lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A full calendar of school visits to the Centre, and outreach in schools and communities, had to be cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Our funding plans were virtually halted as organisations moved staff to home-working and froze budgets for the immediate future.
Our person-to-person delivery and potential new incomes simply stopped. The impact of COVID-19 on Cambridge Science Centre (CSC) was therefore sudden, dramatic and significant.
Achieving just over 40% above plan in the first two months of 2020, March saw a swift and devastating change as we faced three major challenges from the COVID-19 crisis.
- Unprecedented changes for our beneficiaries
No matter how adeptly teachers managed their remote learning programmes, they have not been able to replicate the dynamics of a school classroom. Engagement has not always been the same for every child without the structure of the school day, particularly for children who do not have access to resources or strong family support.
When they return to school, children will be at very different points from where, under normal circumstances, they would expect to be and, crucially, from one another. It is therefore likely that the disparity between the advantaged and disadvantaged - will be increasing by the day without intervention.
With schools closed there was an expectation that parents would support their child’s learning from home. But, parents do not necessarily have digital resources available for all family members to use at the same time – the recently identified ‘digital divide’.
With continued school closures, limited time in school and the continuation of remote learning, we anticipate the situation will worsen without additional resources and support.
- A need to rapidly reassess our deliverables
Some of our best ideas have come from the hardest situations. Since we couldn’t engage directly with our audiences, we re-focused to develop different platforms for engagement and to find new routes to reach large numbers of young people across East Anglia, particularly those in areas of multiple deprivation that continue to remain our key target.
This required our team to learn new writing and presentation skills so we could adapt delivery of our shows and workshops to an online format. We learnt video production and how to make technical website changes.
- A potentially catastrophic downturn in our income and funding.
Despite the growing need for our services, income generation remains a priority. In March, income from the Centre and our paid-for outreach programmes in schools stopped immediately and we do not see this returning during 2020.
Fortunately, our revenues are diversified and we have continued to receive generous support from our Executive Council members (Anglia Ruskin University, Arm, Astra Zeneca, CEMEX and Mathworks). Building on our partnership, their support has not only been financial but also offering valued assistance in our operations, in particular from their staff who are currently furloughed. At the same time, CSC has been able to support their CSR agendas.
Individual donors and our founders have also continued to provide welcome support and we are developing a new patron programme called our ‘Atomic Circle’ to attract personal giving.
Always a highly competitive field, attracting new grant funding in these difficult times has felt somewhat gruesome. We have continued to submit bids to a range of trusts and foundations and have had some small but important successes.
We have never received direct government funding and are not optimistic that we will be able to do so in the foreseeable future but are extremely grateful to have participated in the Job Retention Scheme and received a City Council grant.
We also plan to commercialise some of our new initiatives, once schools return in September on a more normal basis.
What goals or outcomes did Cambridge Science Centre want to achieve?
Our over-arching goal has not changed and we aimed to continue with what we do best:
- Spark the scientific curiosity in every child
- Ignite enduring passion for experimentation & discovery
- Fuel self-belief in those who doubt their own potential
- Illuminate pathways into STEM opportunities & careers.
Children are not the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis is having a profound effect on their educational attainment and wellbeing.
The worldwide closure of schools has no historical precedent. The closures are causing damage to young learners’ lives and the impact is likely to be felt for many years to come. We don’t know how many children are not learning each day as a result of the pandemic but recent studies are beginning to identify that disadvantaged children are perhaps learning less than one-hour a day.
We needed to find different ways to continue to break down the barriers to STEM engagement and to show future generations that no matter who they are or where they come from, STEM opportunities can be ‘for them.’ Adapting our product portfolio has allowed us to meet this goal.
What was your solution?
From the announcement of lockdown and the closure of indoor event spaces and schools, the switch to digital media has been intense and immediate across all areas of education. Families and young learners have been overwhelmed by the enormous range and choice available to them.
We aimed to do something slightly different, filling in gaps in engagement and ensuring our STEM is trustworthy, interactive and fun, developing four new programmes.
OpenUpScience is a weekly themed paper magazine packed full of exciting and inspiring STEM activities for children to do at home. Aimed at children who may find it hard to get online, we are currently delivering 1,500 magazines to over 30 food banks, community groups and COVID-19 response groups.
VirtualSchoolTrip is our way of still letting schools have that trip-to-the-Centre feeling. To date, over 34,000 children have had access to the two free shows and over 450 schools signed up to receive them.
CSCOnline is our online resource of STEM activities. Parents have been able to log-in for free and download activities and explore different themes. Since lockdown, just under 1,000 parents have created an account.
Science@6 is our video programme held at 6pm on a Monday evening. A 5-10 minute show, it is lively and hands-on, very much in the “Blue Peter” style, with solid science delivered in a less formal way.
As we move towards the summer holidays, we have changed our output to offer parents and children fun, outside and inside activities to try on our Facebook page.
For everyone involved with Cambridge Science Centre, the aim is to ensure that every young person we meet is given the same equality of opportunity to engage with STEM subjects. We work hard to break down barriers to STEM participation and show that STEM is for everyone, from anywhere.— Helen Slaski, CEO
How did you roll out your approach?
Hard decisions did have to be made – identifying the best way we could continue our STEM engagement within our tight financial constraints and limited capacity, how to reach our audiences, how to maintain staff morale and confidence, and how to balance the budget.
Our Science Communicators normally work as one team. In ‘normal’ times, they will alternate between delivering workshops to schools, individual classes and presenting our shows to families at our Science Centre. During the lockdown period, the whole team have been working at home and the Delivery and Exhibitions staff have been split into two teams, alternating periods of work and furlough.
These changes have required everyone to adapt to the new regimes. Furlough has obviously reduced our output. Working from home creates its own challenges with some members of our team being separated from family, whilst others have been working alongside home-schooled children.
However, we have worked hard to ensure that staff have daily contact whilst working, both socially and work related, via online resources, and that clear responsibilities for tasks and deliverables were allocated to specific staff on each team to help with handover between teams. Trusting colleagues on the opposite team to deliver played a huge role.
As soon as lockdown was in place and prior to furlough starting, the whole team worked on ideas generation, design and development and initial production of the new resilience products so that everyone was included and engaged with the changes from the very start.
This enabled us to deliver our new products with the resources of just half the Delivery staff at any one time, within weeks. Costs have been tightly controlled and build of the new exhibition scheduled for launch later this year was put on hold.
What have the results been?
Despite the lockdown, since April we have been able to connect with:
- More than 440 schools
- Over 34,000 children
- Just under 1,000 new parents
- 1,500 children who cannot access online teaching
- 35 new community groups and charities.
Online, our followings and engagement rates have increased across all platforms. Numbers are up and are remaining steady with new followers again across all channels. Our reach remains high as we continue to connect with new individuals, groups and businesses.
We have gained new, important and hopefully long-term relationships with businesses, other charities, community groups, social enterprises and individuals.
Our employees have had a fast learning curve transferring their skills online and as such, have learnt much about technology, delivery and understanding our audience.
Importantly, we have also been able to demonstrate to our current funders that we continue to meet the charitable goals they had invested in at the beginning of 2020.
We remain optimistic in building relationships with potential corporate partners and whilst we are not currently able to access any government funding, we are extremely active in pursuing any appropriate grants and gifts.
Are there any measurable impacts of the work you’ve done?
As we now adapt to changing circumstances and can no longer rely on person-to-person engagements, our learning is already increasing rapidly and we expect to learn a huge amount more about relevant elements of good STEM communication, appropriate channels to use and science capital best practice. This will be a solid measure of our success and become a crucial building block of our future.
What advice would you give to other businesses looking to do something similar?
Be brave! We have evolved and continue to evolve our delivery and deliverables as we have learnt how to meet the changing needs of our beneficiaries. Being able to respond quickly and being willing to try new approaches, leaving some of the “old” behind has ensured we have been as resilient as we can in very difficult circumstances.