My experience being a Brilliant Club tutor

23rd December 2022

Alongside her postgraduate research into the health benefits of pomegranates, Julia Haarhuis works with the Brilliant Club to support students from a less advantaged background access higher education. We spoke to Julia to find out more.

“I think every child should have access to education of good quality, regardless of their background.A close up of a young person's hands writing

I spotted on our intranet across the Norwich Biosciences Institutes about opportunities with the Brilliant Club. The Brilliant Club mobilises PhD students like me to teach school students about our field of research. The club works across the UK offering a range of programmes to support less advantaged students to access the most competitive universities and to succeed when they get there.

These students may be disadvantaged because of facing financial or social hardship or because they are first-generation students, meaning their parents did not complete a university degree.

As soon as I learned about the Brilliant Club, I signed up to get involved and help provide students with equal opportunities to succeed in university.

Working with the Brilliant Club

So far, I have been involved with the Scholars Programme for school students in Year 6 to Year 12 (aged between 10 and 16). In this programme we teach students over seven tutorials with a focus on their subject knowledge, critical thinking skills, and written communication skills.

I’ve mostly taught tutorials in person across Norfolk though I have given some sessions remotely including to school students in Wales.

We teach them about what reliable resources are, how to write a solid essay, and how to have an effective classroom discussion. The students finish the programme by completing a final assignment which is pitched one level above their current grade. This is meant to challenge the students in a positive way.

It’s our role as tutors to come up with activities to transfer the handbook material effectively. We also correct the assignments of the students after each tutorial and provide feedback on their assignments.

Bringing research into the classroom

The Brilliant Club offers us the opportunity as tutors to develop our own course handbook for students. I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of designing a course and using different teaching techniques.

I find it very inspiring to combine research with teaching, especially since I get to teach about the topic I’m specializing in as a PhD student.

I’m currently working on a handbook about the good and the bad of gut microbes. There’s a lot of misconceptions about microbes. They are often considered “bad” and “nasty”. I think it’s important to remove these misconceptions and introduce students to the importance of our microbiota.

It’s been a positive challenge to design a course handbook for a young audience. You start with the very basics. When explaining gut microbes, you also have to incorporate material that covers what bacterial cells are and how they differ from animal cells. This knowledge may be obvious if you’re a scientist, but for many school students this is new information.

I teamed up with Professor Lindsay Hall, a Group Leader here at the Quadram Institute and Dr Jenni Rant from Science Art Writing (SAW) to incorporate into the handbook some of the classroom material that they have created for the Guardians of the Gut project.

The Guardians of the Gut has an activity for students to create a gut model for people at different life stages. Students first get introduced to several microbial families and then lo which are more common at what life stages. They learn that babies have a gut microbiome with more Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species, while adults have more Roseburia bacteria species.

The students get a cup that represents one of the people (for example babies, adults, or sick people) and several small objects that represent each microbial family. They have to fill the cups with the objects (the “microbes”) that they think belong to this particular people. It’s a very fun activity that sparks active participation, which also works well for the Brilliant Club tutorials.

Developing skills as a PhD student

Tutoring has taught me the importance of being patient and flexible during tutorials because each student learns at their own pace.

Although it may seem challenging to work with young students, the Brilliant Club trains their tutors very well. I have had two training days, of which one online training and one in-person training. Both have been very helpful in developing teaching techniques to succeed in tutoring HE students. On the training days, I met other tutors with whom we shared ideas for engaging activities or potentially challenging classroom situations and how to handle them.

I learned that it is important to be patient for all students to get the point you’re trying to get across, even though it may not be obvious as students who don’t understand it are not always speaking up. So, I ask lots of questions to every student and I try to give each of them a turn to talk in class, which is feasible as the groups consists of just seven students per session.

The Brilliant Club purposely aims for small groups, so tutors are closely involved with the progress of every student. It’s a great opportunity to start a dialogue with the group.

Teaching helps you as a PhD student to reflect on your own research, because the questions from students are very different from questions you get when speaking to a scientific audience.

In my opinion, it is vital for scientists to explain their work to any member of the public, not just the scientific community. Working with the Brilliant Club gives you the opportunity to develop your science communication and teaching skills.

Making an impact

The Brilliant Club is very good at evaluating their programmes. After every placement, they create an Impact Report about the students’ progress. This is measured by baseline and final assignment reports and the feedback given by the students themselves.

The Impact Report is shared with the schools and the tutor at the end of the placement. It is amazing to see how the students improved and the comments are heartwarming.

At the end of my first placement a school student commented: “The tutorials have made me more confident to believe that I can do things I never knew I could. I’m forever grateful that thanks to my tutor I really learnt a lot and it improved my confidence in my own ability.” This is why I love being a Brilliant Club tutor!

If you’re a PhD student and would like to develop your science communication and teaching skills, apply to join the Brilliant Club. Besides the skills you learn, you support a brilliant cause of preparing students to access competitive universities, regardless of their backgrounds.

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