Discovery Days 2023 Wrap-up

Last month, we wrapped up the 2023 season of Discovery Days, the second stage of the Salters’ Festival of Chemistry. Over two months, 561 students aged 14-16 from all four home nations got hands-on in university labs and learned about career pathways in chemistry and beyond. We asked Daisy McConnell, one of our Outreach Ambassadors, to write about her experiences supporting three of the Discovery Days in 2023:

Daisy (centre) assisting students at Aston University.

In May and June 2023, I was lucky enough to support the Discovery Days in three locations: the University of Bristol, Swansea University and Aston University. During those five days I worked with more than 200 students aged 14-16, and I like to think that every one of them gained something from the Discovery Day they attended.

Each day began with the students arriving onto the university campus, often marvelling at the size of the buildings and lecture halls. Many had been travelling for hours, but still arrived with joy and enthusiasm for the day ahead. After a couple of introductions from the Programme Manager, Sam, and the lovely staff at the university, we were ready for the first session of the day: a talk from a guest speaker, often a chemist or chemical engineer at the forefront of their industry or research. These talks completely captivated the students, and they regularly asked intelligent questions that showed a great depth of thought. As an undergraduate chemistry student, I was also fascinated by the cutting-edge science the speakers presented.

After a safety briefing, it was time for the students to enter the laboratory and synthesise aspirin. The shock and excitement exhibited by the students reminded me of my first time in a university lab – in fact, the lab used by the students on the Discovery Day in Bristol was the very same lab I used as a first-year undergraduate student! The aspirin synthesis is generally not attempted by students before post-16 chemistry lessons, and many of the students were excited to be attempting a tricky experiment. I supported the students through the synthesis and answered any questions they had, but overall the students were incredibly capable. Some of them produced aspirin crystals much better than the crystals I formed in the lab! The students also used professional characterisation instruments, such as infra-red spectrometers, which allowed them to confirm that they had made aspirin.

The lab sessions wrapped up and the days ended with a chemistry careers panel and Q&A. The professionals on the careers panels ranged from current academics and technicians to industry professionals and even patent attorneys. Every Discovery Day I saw a visible shift in what students considered a career in chemistry could involve or where studying it could lead to. I really believe that being able to ask their questions to such a range of professionals from various backgrounds expanded their view of chemistry.

For many students, the Discovery Days cemented a pre-existing love of science; for others, I believe it opened their eyes to a new side of chemistry that they did not know existed. Multiple students told me that the Discovery Day made them want to study chemistry as a post-16 subject. It was an honour to be part of something that inspires the next generation of scientists, and I can’t wait to support more Discovery Days in 2024!

Thank you to the six universities who hosted a Discovery Day this year: University of Bristol, Newcastle University, Queen’s University Belfast, University of Aberdeen, Swansea University and Aston University.

Learn more about the Salters’ Festivals of Chemistry here:

If you have any queries about the Festivals of Chemistry, please email [email protected].

Check out the snapshots from our Aston University visit below.