Following in the footsteps of Irish physicist and Nobel laureate Ernest Walton, the Trinity Walton Club gives students the stimulus and space they need to change the world.
Set up by physics lecturer Arlene Gallagher in 2014, this STEM enrichment programme for second-level students at Trinity College provides a much-needed opportunity for those interested in STEM to practice what they love most.
“To be great at anything requires deliberate practice,” says Gallagher. “For people interested in sport, the arts, languages, almost everything, they have lots of opportunities to develop in those areas. The Walton Club provides students interested in STEM, who may typically be isolated in their schools, with opportunity and stimulus to allow them to develop their problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and communication skills, using topics they are interested in.”
At the club students embark on a 100-week educational experience, working on Saturdays for four years, a commitment that surprises even Gallagher.
“We have students travel from as far as Limerick and Sligo every Saturday for years. That in itself is very inspirational. I’ve been overwhelmed by their continued effort. The youth in Ireland believe they can make a difference and we facilitate that.”
“Typically, students don’t sit in the driving seat of their education. Our model for learning is curiosity led.”
One of the unique elements of the club is that it’s based in a university. It connects students interested in STEM, as well as with inspirational role models.
“In a classroom, students don’t look three chapters ahead and don’t go off topic because it’s not on the exam,” continues Gallagher. “They don’t sit in the driving seat of their education. Our model for learning is curiosity led. They can teach themselves anything. They are not waiting to be taught.”
The Walton Club encourages autonomy, advocacy and identity. Students gain confidence to think critically and form well-reasoned opinions based on evidence.
“That’s empowering, and it lasts a lifetime,” says Gallagher.
“It was exceptional. We allow them to do anything they care about.”
Real world challenges
Crucially students work on real-world challenges, learning how to combine STEM skills to help them understand the problem as well as find a solution.
“The students work with PhD and undergraduate students who are working on challenges. They get to see the interdisciplinarity of STEM and overlap between the challenges, and that it takes more than one area to solve a real-life problem.”
Students also engage in research projects on a topic they are interested in. In the third year, they find a societal challenge that resonates with them and work with others to propose a solution.
“A student with a deaf sister teamed up with a student experienced in working with deaf women to develop a solution to difficulties in communicating,” explains Gallagher.
“The girls created a glove that transformed the mechanical motion of the deaf person’s fingers as they moved, into words. It was exceptional. We allow them to do anything they care about. When we put the student voice at the centre, we see these young people shine.”
“As a young female I didn’t feel STEM was something I could engage in.”
There is a spotlight on gender equality across all disciplines at the moment. With movements like Inspirefest, the 30% Club and the Stemettes, people are trying to make changes in this field, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“As a young female I didn’t feel STEM was something I could engage in,” admits Gallagher. “Our programme is 50/50 across the student body and the staff. It’s one of the ingredients to our success. I’m a mentor to some undergraduates in the STEM field, and I hear them say, they don’t fit in. It’s not very inspirational for the next generation to see that females are only 20% represented in fields like computer science. I am in favour of quotas until we reach parity. It will allow others to say; I could be like them.”
“It’s in the country’s interest to have more clubs like this.”
Global thought leader
The Walton Club is at a turning point with Gallagher and her team at the strategic planning stages to replicate the model elsewhere in the country and even further afield.
“We could keep the programme small and continue tweaking it, but it’s in the country’s interest to have a national footprint and have more clubs like this to allow learners space, time and stimulus to reach their potential,” she says.
“We are looking for funders to help us realise our goal. We are developing the programme, thinking about best practices that have allowed us to be so successful and to be able to support others to initiate such activates, wherever they are across Ireland and overseas.”
As well as replicating their successful blueprint far and wide, the Walton Club would like to have an annual meet–up, where their students could plug into a ten thousand strong network of inspired, enthused, innovative young minds from all over the world.
“Can you imagine what could come from that,” enthuses Gallagher. “We could make national changes and be a global thought leader in this space.”
Teenagers between 13-17 interested in getting involved can find more information at www.tcd.ie/waltonclub.
Interview by Olivia McGill.