6 Jul 2021 STEAM / STEM

Sheffield and STEM- Science in the Steel City

Sheffield has numerous science and engineering discoveries under its belt thanks to its proud industrial heritage. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Move over silicon valley. MIT? Never heard of it. Look no further than capital of South Yorkshire for an inspirational and proud engineering past.

The discoveries made in Sheffield have changed the face of STEM. From engineering advancement thanks to Sheffield steel, to understanding what happens to the air we breath in and out- this city has had a global scientific impact.

In this blog we’ll look at how the city’s industry led to engineering and material science firsts, the education institutions that make Sheffield a scientific hub today and at the importance of teaching Sheffield’s primary school students about their home town’s STEM history.

Steel, Steel and more Steel

It’s impossible to look at Sheffield’s STEM past without looking at it’s greatest export- Steel.

South Yorkshire’s steel industry is at the heart of the city’s modern history. Using it’s vantage point beside the Peak District, Sheffield put its natural resources to good use. Abundant raw materials like iron ore and coal made the area appealing to newly fledged steel magnates.

It’s specialty in knife and cutlery production caught the attention of early material scientists who wanted to make higher quality, stronger steel. Amongst those was Benjamin Huntsman, the Doncaster clock maker who crusaded an improved method of producing steel in the 1700s.

Diagram showing Benjamin Huntsman's method of crucible steel production.

Just east of the city centre in Handsworth, Huntsman developed his own crucible technique that increased steel’s quality. Beforehand, steel was usually made by heating raw iron to high temperatures in a crucible, but Huntsman’s method used coke (a specific kind of coal) as a fuel source to achieve even higher temperatures of up to 1,600° C, and blister steel instead of iron. This all meant the steel produced was of a much higher tensile strength.

Thanks to the all-round improvement in quality, steel products from Sheffield were soon in demand around the world. The city accounted for 90% of all of Britain’s and over half of Europe’s steel output during the 19th century.

The stronger steel allowed for incredible leaps in engineering capability that came in the following centuries- from the industrial revolution to the Second World War. Today, Sheffield’s steel making legacy lives on in specialist steel makers for the bioscience and medical fields.

Sheffield’s Double Universities

Science and engineering prowess isn’t new to Sheffield thanks to it’s two universities. Being a university city means many of today’s biology and chemistry breakthroughs have been made in the city.

Thanks to both University’s medical legacies, Sheffield is also the place many of the country’s doctors and nurses received their training.

University of Sheffield

The heart space atrium at the University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield’s history can be traced back to the early 19th century with the Sheffield School of Medicine. Its amalgamation with Firth College and the Sheffield Technical School in 1897 eventually lead to the University gaining it’s royal charter in 1905.

Today, it’s one of the country’s forefront research and engineering universities and has six Nobel laureates to it’s name.

The Krebs Cycle

The University of Sheffield was home to Hans Adolf Krebs, who discovered the Krebs Cycle in 1937 in a Sheffield laboratory. It explained exactly what happens to the air we breath and the sugars we eat.

We all know that respiration is a chemical reaction- oxygen and glucose (sugar) react together to release energy and produce carbon dioxide and water. What wasn’t clear in Krebs’ day was how exactly the start and the end of the reaction linked together.

Krebs carried out several chemical reactions to see which one caused oxygen to react with glucose. Using his results, he detailed a complex cycle of mini chemical reactions which all happen in our cells during respiration. His discovery bagged him the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1953.

Sheffield Hallam University

Sheffield Hallam can also trace it’s roots back to the Victorian era as the Sheffield School of Design. Several mergers, rebrands, nursing and medical schools and collegiate campuses later, it too gained it’s full university status in 1992.

In STEM, Hallam leads the way in medical training as one of the country’s biggest health and social care trainers. They train nurses, midwives and paramedics amongst many other medical experts.

Hallam’s specialties have attracted some of the biggest names in UK STEM. Professor Lord Robert Winston, broadcaster, fertility science expert and moustache connoisseur joined the uni in 2001. Following his appointment, the uni also named a healthcare building after him.

It’s new STEM centre opened in 2017, catering for their engineering and technology focused subjects.

Why Learn About Local STEM History?

Putting STEM and history to the side might seem like the easy way to prioritise learning post-pandemic. We can’t forget the massive impact lockdown has had on primary education and the game of catch-up we need to perform.

However, researchers looking at the impact of Covid-19 on primary education found that the “catch-up” narrative does more harm than good. Data driven, assessment focused teaching to make sure pupils are getting the grades they should naturally misses out parts of the curriculum that aren’t reading, writing or maths related.

Learning about local history has well documented benefits. Research has shown that local history education helps students with their sense of identity and their understanding of the area around them. So it’s no surprise that changes to the national curriculum in 2014 started local history education as early as Key Stage 1.

If teaching local history resonates more with younger children than learning about far off events, the same could be said of science. Having local role models on your doorstep can prove to be hugely inspirational for budding STEM experts.

If science is a lower priority in primary schools- only 30% of senior leadership team members see science as a very important- why not wrap it into other subjects like local history?

Science lessons have been put on the back burner, so a fresher focus is essential to make up for lost time. Whether that be a Science Ambassador programme in your school or smuggling science into your other subjects like history, there are ways to make that deficit back.