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Caithness STEM ambassador retires after 30 years of inspiring kids

By David G Scott

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He may have only moved to the Caithness coast for the surfing but Pat Kieran stayed on to become an inspiration for children studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Pat was a much-loved STEM ambassador for the far north and is now retiring after 30 years of educational service, describing himself as an “average engineer, but a good teacher”.

Since 2017, the Reay man has been spending one day a week working remotely for Aberdeen Science Centre (Asc) – coordinating STEM activities in the Highlands and Islands.

The electrical engineering graduate from Liverpool was drawn to Caithness in 1977 to pursue engineering roles at Rolls Royce and Dounreay, but also for the surfing – which he says is among the best in the world.

Pat with his MBE outside Holyrood Palace in 2010
Pat with his MBE outside Holyrood Palace in 2010

Pat began working as a senior lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands in 1983, and during that time started a young engineers club.

One highlight of his time with the club was the Batmobile, a specially converted bus housing a mobile laboratory, which Pat and his fellow club members would take to schools across the north of Scotland to educate youngsters about STEM.

He said: “We had a little electronics lab upstairs where we built bat detectors with the kids. We had an interactive bat exhibition downstairs with bat noises and we built hundreds of bat detectors, for children across the north of Scotland."

Since then, Pat has been instrumental in developing STEM engagement activities and clubs for young people in the area while maintaining his career as a lecturer and engineer.

Planet Pioneers, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) project developed with local artist and friend Alex Patience, saw school children pretend they were travelling from Earth to different planets, which Pat remembers fondly.

Pat with his family at Holyrood Palace when he received his MBE in 2010.
Pat with his family at Holyrood Palace when he received his MBE in 2010.

“The pupils had to work out how long it was going to take them to get there, what the problems would be with living on that planet and how long it was going to take to go around the sun. They produced models and drawings and we had interactive games all related to that. The amount of science we were able to teach through that project was fantastic and great fun too,” he said.

Keen to expand the programme’s reach, Pat used his unique experience and contacts to build what has now become an extensive network of around 120 STEM ambassadors across Scotland.

Pat’s ingenuity and enthusiasm earned him an MBE from the Queen for his contribution to STEM education in 2010. The honour came as such a surprise to Pat that he doubted whether it was real at first.

“I've got a mate, Brian, who is a great trickster and this had Brian written all over it. I thought it was just too crazy to be taken seriously. But no, it was the real thing and it was quite amazing, I had absolutely no idea it was coming."

Pat’s passion for STEM education is still going strong and he plans to spend some of his retirement continuing to raise funds for the Green Goblin car project in association with Aberdeen Science Centre. The nationwide project sees school children build their own kit cars and then race them at Alford.

Looking back over his career, Pat describes his greatest achievement as inspiring children, who may not previously have considered a career in STEM, to realise their potential in the field.

He said: “It’s very, very important that children and young people in rural areas are given access to STEM facilities and resources, because there are some clever kids out there. They need to know engineers aren't remote, strange creatures they can’t relate to.

“If they see someone they maybe know, who used to go to their school, or who's a similar age to them, then it makes it more real for them and helps them realise this is something they can do.”

Bryan Snelling, Asc chief executive, said: “We’d like to thank Pat for the passion and enthusiasm he has shown over the years, ensuring young people in some of Scotland’s most remote and rural areas are inspired by and open to the possibility of a career in STEM.

“He will be sorely missed, but his ethos is very much engrained in the team of local ambassadors he worked so hard to develop, each of whom I’m sure will join me in wishing him every success in his much deserved retirement.”

For more information on Aberdeen Science Centre, visit www.aberdeensciencecentre.org

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