Steaming to success: Interview with Lynn Willacy, Air Products

Lynn Willacy, Community and STEM Ambassador at Air Products, talks to Educate about her role in turning more young people onto the exciting opportunities on offer in the gas industry

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From captivating children with incredible liquid nitrogen experiments to mocking up a museum elevator to look like superstar astronaut Tim Peake’s rocket, it’s safe to say Lynn Willacy has been thinking big when it comes to promoting a career in the gas industry.

Lynn joined the world-leading industrial gases company in 2000 as part of the customer service team but following a company restructure in 2015 was tasked with inspiring more budding students to get involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, and learn about career opportunities at Air Products.

“With this programme we go into schools, free of charge, to do liquid nitrogen demonstrations and talk about Air Products – teaching the children about how gases impact on everyday life.”

Founded in 1940, the US-headquartered firm has been in operation for over 75 years providing atmospheric and process gases to a range of manufacturing markets including the refining and petrochemical sectors and the food industry.

“It’s about getting the gas industry as a whole better recognised as a great place to work,” explains Lynn.

Key to Lynn’s strategy has been to utilise the company’s network of ‘Science Ambassadors’ – volunteers from across the business who go into schools to explain more about the gas industry and Air Products to children.

“When I started the role we had 35 ambassadors but now we’ve got over 70 going through the programme,” says Lynn.

“With this programme we go into schools, free of charge, to do liquid nitrogen demonstrations and talk about Air Products – teaching the children about how gases impact on everyday life.

“This is done on an age-specific basis – some of our newer ambassadors will go into primary schools but we have got some of our chemical engineers and more technical people who will go in secondary schools and colleges.”

Although thrilling experiments have proved an excellent way to get more young people interested in a career in the industry – many of the initiatives Lynn has championed go much more in depth and explain to students the career options available to them.

“All our ambassadors are Air Products employees so they’ve got a good understanding of what we do and it’s something that they do on a voluntary basis”.

Lynn is proud to divulge that of the 70 voluntary ambassadors at Air Products, 28 of them are female. Despite this positive statistic she admits the company has concerns about gender bias issues in education when it comes to girls and engineering.

“Unless you’re at an all-girls school which has a STEM club – the language of some of the teachers and educators can be very gender bias – it can turn girls off thinking about engineering or science as a career.

“As an organisation we are very diverse and very inclusive – if you take a look at our management team and the people that we have in the business in technical and engineering roles then you will find that a high proportion are women.”

An exciting recent development has seen the company sign on as an industry partner to support a new European research project led by the Association for Science Discovery Centres (ASDC) known as Hypatia.

Funded by Horizon 2020, Hypatia spans 14 European countries and aims to communicate science to young people in a gender inclusive way in order to realise the full potential of girls and boys around Europe to follow STEM related careers.

On the issue of STEM, something else Lynn has been keen to explore has been the ongoing debate over STEM vs STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics)

A 2015 report drawn up by a special commission involving cultural leaders and academic experts said that “creativity and the arts are being squeezed out of schools”.

The study cited the UK government’s focus on STEM subjects as a key factor which has led to a drop in the number of schools employing specialist arts teachers.

The emergence of the STEAM movement has sought to encourage the increased integration of art and design into education and exalted the virtues of critical analysis which both artists and scientists have in common.

Lynn Willacy, Community and STEM Ambassador at Air ProductsCatalyst STEM workshops

Lynn is fully behind the movement and highlights a number of initiatives Air Products has been involved with which have sought to bring art closer together with science.

The firm recently sponsored a project called Elementals, which, spearedheaded by a physics teacher, challenged schoolchildren to create their own characters for each element of the periodic table before competing ‘Pokemon-style’ against each other.

“It’s about looking for where we’ve got creative elements in science,” says Lynn.

“One of the other things we do in primary schools is get the children to act as air separation units – following the process of separating the different elements of air.

“For those students who are interested in drama, rather than science, this is a different way of engaging and educating them on the elements of air.”

Air Products is also increasingly working with UTCs (University Technical Colleges) and last year partnered with Crewe Engineering and Design UTC here in the North West.

Since then, Lynn has overseen a number of projects at the college which have again not only sought to give students of all ages hands-on experience with science experiments, but to also start them thinking about problem solving – something Lynn calls an “important skill” in engineering.

“This is an example of how to get the students thinking about food freezing and why you would use liquid nitrogen instead of mechanical freezing,” adds Lynn.

“Our industry was also starting to get discussed during normal lessons which is brilliant.

“This is where creativity comes back into the picture again. If you’re a creative person then you automatically start to look for solutions which is what engineers do.”

For more information about Air Products contact: Air Products Plc, 2 Millennium Gate, Westmere Drive, Crewe, CW1 6AP

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