Q&A - Gates Teach-a-Thon
Q: Hi everyone! Can you tell us your names, Gates Cambridge year, and your Cambridge degree and/or institutional affiliation?
Anna, Emma & Shalom (A, E & S): We are Anna Guasco (2019, PhD Geography), Emma Soneson (2018, PhD Psychiatry), and Shalom Henderson (2020, PhD Medical Science at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit).
Q: What is the Gates Teach-a-Thon and how did it come to be?
A, E & S: The Gates Teach-a-Thon is a week-long programme of short and interactive online teaching sessions led by Gates Cambridge Scholars. Sessions span the arts and humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields and are designed for secondary school students, ages 12 to 18.
The first ever Teach-a-Thon was held during lockdown in February 2021. Our goal was to provide additional opportunities for curiosity-led learning amidst reports of secondary school students missing out on such opportunities during the school closures, as well as to inspire and motivate students. We wanted to reach students from across the country, and even the globe, and to make access to this learning opportunity as equitable as possible – particularly within the context of wider issues of inequitable access to education during those school closures. We reached out to schools and educational access organisations to reach potential student attendees, and we set up teaching sessions at different times throughout the week to accommodate different time zones. After consulting with UK schools, we chose to run the event during half-term, to maximise the benefit of learning opportunities for families during the school break. Although we had very little time to pull the event together, we were delighted to see how much interest students showed – we had over 100 students joining daily!
This year, we were really pleased to be part of the wider Cambridge Festival programming. We continued with the online format in order to make the event accessible to audiences who could not physically come to Cambridge and for those unable to participate in person during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We had different themes for each day (e.g. ‘humanities’, ‘interdisciplinary subjects’, or ‘physical sciences’). On each day, four Gates Cambridge Scholars led 30-minute interactive sessions on their area of research. Each lesson featured a talk about the presenting scholar’s research area, activities encouraging participation throughout, and a Q&A session at the end, where students could ask anything of our Scholars. This included questions ranging from the material covered to what they studied when they were in secondary school!
Like last year, we held the Teach-a-Thon during what, for many students in the UK, was a school holiday, and recorded sessions for on-request access.
Q: What is the goal of the programme? How would you describe its significance?
A, E & S: The main goals of each Teach-a-Thon session are: to excite and inspire students, to teach them about a topic they might not learn about as part of their regular school lessons, and to give them a glimpse of what it’s like to study at university. Students also have the opportunity to connect with and ask questions of international postgraduate students about life at university.
As mentioned earlier, the original motivation for putting on Teach-a-Thon was that we wanted to provide those opportunities for learning beyond the standard curriculum and connection that are being reduced for many students. After we saw how much students enjoyed participating in the sessions, we decided to run Teach-a-Thon again, even though the specific context of public health lockdowns no longer applied (although the broader conditions of the ongoing pandemic certainly still did). We aim to provide additional, extracurricular learning opportunities for students who might not be receiving such opportunities.
Finally, our primary audience, or, more accurately, student community, is secondary school students. We hoped to connect with these students who might be in the process of choosing their GCSE or A-level subjects or thinking about whether they would like to go to university and/or what they would like to study, and to help map out the connections and avenues for studying all these exciting topics in university and beyond! We were particularly excited to highlight interdisciplinary research this year, aiming to show how students might envision potential areas of study beyond the limits of one specific field.
Q: How did you all become involved in organising the programme? Why were you all excited to support the Teach-a-Thon in this way?
A, E & S: We all served as Gates Cambridge Scholars Council officers during the pandemic and shared a passion for critical, reflective forms of public engagement. The first Teach-a-Thon was part of the programming of the Year of Engagement, which began in 2020. Instead of devoting a single day of service and engagement, the Year of Engagement committee has sought to foster an environment where Gates Scholars can commit to sustainable, long-term engagement within the Cambridge and wider global community. Since its inception, we’ve hosted many events year-round in addition to the Teach-a-Thon to encourage scholars and to work together as a community to think critically about all forms of service and engagement. Although the official Year of Engagement ended in 2021 (at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year), we’ve transitioned this model into the Gates Cambridge Engagement Working Group. We’re excited for more Scholars to join us in planning future events (such as Teach-a-Thon) and sharing ideas about sustained, reflective engagement practices!
Q: When organising the Gates Teach-a-Thon, who is included in this process and why?
A, E & S: Working with various partners is an important part of the process to ensure we’re reaching the students we want to reach and to ensure we’re delivering programming that is useful, relevant, and interesting to those students. This year, we were happy to work with the Cambridge Festival and the University’s Public Engagement (PE) team. The Festival and the PE team helped us with outreach and with training participating Scholars. We also reached out to county councils and schools across the UK, as well as various education access and youth development organisations, to help get the word out to students.
Q: The second Gates Teach-a-Thon happened in early April 2022. Congratulations on a successful programme! What did you all learn from the inaugural 2021 event that you incorporated into the 2022 event?
A, E & S: We learned that the online format was very successful and helped us reach a global audience of enthusiastic students! We were very pleased with the level of student engagement in the online setting, which challenged some common discourses about student experiences of digital/remote learning. Listening to student feedback was a key aspect of how we planned and adapted Teach-a-Thon for its second iteration. We collected input via a survey last year, and some of the positive feedback we received included: the variety of talks, the enthusiasm of presenting Scholars, and opportunities for interaction. One student said: “Everyone was so enthusiastic about their respective fields, which really drew me in, and the fact that everyone else in the webinar was so interactive made things even more exciting. I honestly feel the interactions in this Teach-a-Thon are what sets it apart from all other webinars - so so engaging! All the speakers were so willing to answer any questions we had, which made the environment feel so friendly.”
Last year, we worked with The Brilliant Club, an educational access charity, to provide Scholars with training on how to design and deliver their sessions. This year, we were very fortunate to partner with Jenny Williams, who works with the Cambridge Festival to promote school and family engagement. Jenny designed two wonderful training sessions for Scholars on how to make their sessions as relevant, interesting, and engaging as possible. These were really well-received!
We also found that our participating Scholars learned a lot from each other – and could learn collaboratively and hone their public engagement skills even more, especially in terms of how to connect with students and create meaningful opportunities for interaction and engagement throughout the sessions. So, this year, we implemented a peer review system. Following the two training sessions, we paired up Scholars (typically on very different topics) to review each others’ slides for interest, clarity, and accessibility. We hope this new component helped build a sense of community, in addition to opportunities for feedback on research communication, among Scholars.
Finally, we wanted to make a clearer connection between our programme and the subjects available for students to take at school. Part of Teach-a-Thon aims to show the different academic and/or professional paths you might take to pursue any number of things you might be interested in! So, this year, we identified all relevant GCSE and A-Level subjects for each day of Teach-a-Thon and included those on our event information and booking page.
Q: What’s next for the 2023 Teach-a-Thon?
A, E & S: We are currently evaluating how Teach-a-Thon might evolve in the future and welcome any feedback or ideas from Scholars interested in shaping its future! This year’s Teach-a-Thon ended just a couple weeks ago, and we’re currently collecting feedback from attendees that will shape potential future planning.
Q: What is the significance of “Community” and “Place” to the work of the Teach-a-Thon?
A, E & S: Teach-a-Thon is all about creating a sense of community across distance. It is very much part of the movement that has grown during the pandemic, but certainly did not begin with the pandemic, of finding ways to come together, forge connections, and learn with and from each other in digital space. Our Gates Cambridge community is international, and we wanted the opportunity to participate in these interactive sessions to be available to students around the world, too. In addition, our Scholars are spread all over the world, even while pursuing their degrees at Cambridge (due to research travel, visits home, etc.), and this was, even more, the case last year during the lockdowns. In both years, we had Scholars and students alike joining from across the globe, and we hope that the sessions helped create a sense of community across both physical and figurative distance. We hope Teach-a-thon has served as a way for Gates Cambridge Scholars to connect with local communities (both within Cambridge and the broader UK), as well as with communities beyond the UK.
Q: Are there any other thoughts you all would like to share about the Gates Teach-a-Thon?
A, E & S: We would like to end by warmly thanking all of the Scholars who taught in this year’s Teach-a-Thon, the Cambridge Festival for their active partnership in the event, and, most importantly, all of the students who attended throughout the week! Organising Teach-a-Thon two years in a row has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and we are so grateful to everyone involved!
Thank you to Anna, Emma, and Shalom for sharing their insights into the Gates Teach-a-Thon and for all of their work organising in 2021 and 2022. We look forward to seeing how their work with the Gates Teach-a-Thon and the Gates Cambridge Engagement Working Group continues next year.
Anna Guasco  is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Geography. Her research analyses histories, storytelling, and justice issues surrounding gray whale migration and conservation.
Emma Soneson  is a final year PhD student in the Department of Psychiatry. She researches public health approaches to identifying and responding to mental health difficulties among children and young people.
Shalom Henderson  is a second-year PhD student at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. Her research investigates semantic cognition in neurodegenerative disorders.