Billingham's Future Scientist Programme inspires students and receives recognition and support from the House of Commons


The shortage of science graduates coming out of universities is a worry to the government in the UK and to companies like Johnson Matthey. The problem starts earlier: not enough school students are choosing science subjects at GCSE and A Level. To stimulate interest in science and show its practical relevance, a cross functional team from the Billingham site in the north east of England developed a Future Scientist Programme, which was launched at a local secondary school.

The Future Scientist Programme builds on the Billingham site's ten years of experience with primary school children, delivering lessons and providing site visits. Until now there was no programme for secondary schools – a time when career decisions are often made unwittingly through the choice of subjects to study for GCSE, the exams taken at age 16 in the UK.

The site put together a team of nine Johnson Matthey ambassadors, drawn from five business areas. The team decided to target pupils in their first year at secondary school, age 12, when children are impressionable and receptive to the excitement that science can bring. The team chose a local secondary school, St Michael's, which specialises in science, and some of the pupils had already visited the Johnson Matthey site during their primary school project. The third partner in the programme was an organisation that Johnson Matthey has been working with in primary schools, Chemical Industrial Education Centre (CIEC), on projects that link schools with science based industries such as the Children Challenging Industry Primary school project.

The Future Scientist Programme took the form of three lessons, given by the Johnson Matthey ambassadors, and included a practical session. The core of the programme was catalysts: what they are, what they do, what they look like. Real life examples of catalysts were explained using everyday examples that would be familiar to the children. One was a sewage works, and pupils learnt how catalysts provide a solution to removing malodorous molecules. Another was catalytic converters for cars, showing how catalysis is used to remove harmful pollutants from exhaust fumes.

Although the material was presented in a light hearted and accessible way there was serious science covered. However the real fun for the pupils began when they were asked to conduct a practical and 'research' an industrial project for Johnson Matthey. Pupils were given a hypothetical problem: suppose that Johnson Matthey normally uses a catalase enzyme from potatoes to break down hydrogen peroxide but – if potatoes were in short supply – could manganese oxide be used instead? The class conducted experiments to find out, and in their own words:

"We came to the conclusion that potato was better than manganese oxide. The potato is cheaper but next year, the price could rise…"

In all, 360 children at St Michael's have so far participated in the programme, with 12 teachers involved in the co-development and implementation. The feedback from pupils and teachers says it all.

"They made me think how important science is in the world" according to one pupil, while one teacher saw it as "a fantastic way of bringing industry into school."

The benefits are not all one sided. The Johnson Matthey ambassadors gained new skills, had the chance to work with people from other functions and developed a greater understanding of the wider Johnson Matthey business.

Following on from the launch, a group from the Future Scientist Programme visited the House of Commons in the UK in January 2012 to explain the initiative. The group was made up of representatives of Johnson Matthey, the CIEC, another local company, Thomas Swan, and – importantly – four 'Future Scientists' themselves. The House of Commons event was hosted by MP Esther McVey, who chairs the Chemical Industry All-Party Parliamentary Group. The aim was to gain wider support for the Future Scientist Programme amid an audience of industry professionals and government representatives.

Billingham school students George, Max, Amanda and Ellie explained how taking part had changed their perceptions of science and industry and it was clear that the experience had brought the subject of science to life for them. As one of the youngsters said,

"I had not thought about a job in industry before, but I am now."

Johnson Matthey employees got a chance to explain what they, as ambassadors, had got out of the programme, and senior industrialists who were present were impressed by what people had gained from being involved and were keen to understand more about the scheme.

Many Johnson Matthey sites have educational links with their local communities. The Future Scientist Programme in the north east of England has firmly grasped the issue of awakening young people's interest at an early stage in their secondary education. This enthusiasm ensures that children are aware of careers in science and provides them with the knowledge and opportunity to pursue it.

The programme has been expanded and rolled out into a second local school. Acts of corporate citizenship like these help fulfill the social element of Johnson Matthey's sustainability intentions and strengthen links with the local community.