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Science programme spreads benefit of projects

Trying to balance future benefits from construction work against the disruption it causes now is a challenge. National Grid thinks science offers a different way to benefit communities and the nation as a whole, says Education and Skills Specialist Jonathan Richardson.

It can be hard for communities to see the bigger picture when a construction project disrupts them locally.

That’s a major challenge for a system such as our national electricity grid which covers the entire country. Projects are always under way to maintain, upgrade and improve system assets whose useful life can stretch for many decades.

With such projects, the balance can appear unfairly skewed between who sees the benefits of projects, often well into the future, and who has to put up with the mud, noise and road closures now. And we know only too well the visual impact that new overhead wires, pylons and substations can have.

A good example is the Richborough Connection Project in east Kent where National Grid is working on its pylons in preparation for a link with Belgium. This will give us access to more renewable energy, especially hydro-electric power.

Thanks to the work we’re doing, future generations will benefit from more sustainable energy. However, the work inconveniences people now, and in some cases it will add to the height of pylons that already go through their community, so it seems right that they too get some benefit.

And now there’s a way they can. We’ve just launched a new community scheme to share benefits in other ways – through science education.

We have three new schemes for local communities affected by major infrastructure projects:

  • Science equipment for schools

  • National Grid Engineering Challenge and Awards

  • Teaching the principles of electricity

Our science equipment programme was set up after a successful pilot with communities affected by the Humber Pipeline Project. With this programme, we want to buy equipment for primary schools to help them teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM subjects which we know children need encouragement to study. As well as being useful life knowledge, the subject matter can also be exciting if it’s presented in an engaging way.

Money is tight in schools. At my daughter’s school, for example, there’s no budget for science equipment. That’s common for local primaries, so to be given up to £1,000 for this purpose would be a big thing.

For the National Grid Engineering Challenge, we partnered with a specialist, the Smallpiece Trust, to develop a programme for secondary schools. Through it, we want to encourage pupils to explore careers in engineering.

What we do is run a one-day event at the school that includes workshops and a science club. At the end of the day, we select several students for a week-long residential course at a university to see what it’s like studying engineering at that level. We’re planning to take the engineering challenge to our first school before January.

Our third initiative is about teaching the principles of electricity. Here we were lucky to enlist the help of the television presenter and educator Fran Scott. Fran developed a programme on direct current (DC) electricity. The plan is to train teachers and provide equipment to help pupils benefit from a scientific understanding of electricity.

We’re trying with these new community schemes to find ways to add tangible value to communities disrupted by our work. It’s something many companies like National Grid already do in countries such as France.

As a regulated industry, big cheques are not in our gift. But we do listen carefully to people’s needs. What comes up currently is the difficult situation that schools are in. So when we look at how we can help them, it’s a genuine response to a need expressed by the community.

Our aim is to reach more than 17,500 students in the first year that these projects are active. I’m particularly pleased that we expect 3,500 of them to be disadvantaged children.

Fortunately, the engineering aspects of our work make for interesting programmes and events that help young people understand how the world around them works. Learning about science, engineering and technology can also be the basis of an interesting and rewarding career.