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Q&A Nov 5, 2021

Q&A: Talking with Senior Portfolio Operations Lead Sarah Shanahan on the Butterfly Effect, Jacobs’ STEAM Education Program

Q&A: Talking with Senior Portfolio Operations Lead Sarah Shanahan on the Butterfly Effect, Jacobs’ STEAM Education Program

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) and sustainability are at the heart of our business. We’re united in developing and delivering STEAM education and engagement in the communities where we live and work – and the Butterfly Effect is one of our pioneering programs in this space.

Our STEAM Lead for Europe, Kara Connon, connected with Sarah Shanahan, one of the brains behind the Butterfly Effect, to dig a little deeper into the whys and wherefores of the program.

With 30 years of experience, Sarah has worked in a variety of fields including geology, project management and stakeholder management. She currently has an operational role at Jacobs and works on Transport Scotland’s A9 Dualling Program, which includes developing and delivering its STEAM education program, Academy9.

Kara’s passion for STEAM also blossomed when she worked on the Academy9 STEAM education program with Sarah. In her new role as STEAM Lead for Europe, Kara’s on a mission to make Jacobs a top STEAM employer by bringing together the skills, experiences and passion of #OurJacobs employees to upskill, empower and inspire the next generation.

Kara: Sarah, you’re a STEAM Ambassador and are leading our Climate Change Education Program, the Butterfly Effect. Why is STEAM education so important?

Sarah: STEAM education provides young people with a challenging and supportive environment which will help to inspire the problem solvers of the future. By using the basic building blocks of reading, writing and mathematics, students are shown how they can apply these skills in real life situations and unleash the potential that exists within each and every one of them.

Kara: How did you get involved with STEAM education?

Sarah: I’ve been working with young people ever since I finished my own studies and have always tried to raise awareness of opportunities within the sector. I initially started working in the minerals extraction industry, and the young people who lived in the communities around our sites were always really fascinated about what went on “behind the fence.” We were able to demystify the industry for them, telling them about the activities happening on-site and making it both safer for them to live around and more relevant to their day-to-day learning in school.

Kara: You’ve got a wealth of experience delivering STEAM education for Jacobs. Can you tell me a bit about this and how it helped you develop the Butterfly Effect program?

Sarah: In recent years I’ve been part of the Jacobs team working with Transport Scotland to develop and deliver its award-winning STEM education program, Academy9. The program is central to the legacy of Transport Scotland’s A9 Dualling program, which will see the upgrade of around 80 miles of road between Perth and Inverness from single to dual carriageway.

Included within the ethos of Academy9 are two guiding principles: To create a growth mindset in all learners; and to inspire the next generation to consider a career within infrastructure and engineering. This has been delivered by creating a program for learners from age three to PhD level, where industry and education work hand-in-hand to create a unique learning opportunity where knowledge is exchanged at all levels. I’ve worked with education liaison officers from both a technical and educational background — and by teaming up with them, we believe we’ve created something truly ground-breaking. We drew on this experience and utilized it in the Butterfly Effect.

Kara: Share a bit about the Butterfly Effect program.

Sarah: The Butterfly Effect is a program designed to provide young people with the knowledge and understanding needed to put sustainability at the heart of everything they do. A core element of Jacobs’ STEAM strategy, the program was developed by me and my colleague Rachael Cassidy. The idea was a spark of inspiration based on Rachael’s previous work as a primary school teacher combined with a passion for sustainable living, and my own experience through Jacobs’ health, safety and security journey, BeyondZero. We wanted to create something for young people where we applied those same sustainability principles and moved them from something that we can do, to the way we do everything.

Using our combined experience, we set out a framework for the Butterfly Effect based on forming good habits and learning styles. We then asked a team of Jacobs’ sustainability professionals to create theme ideas based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Rachael used the rich set of ideas to develop age-appropriate activities for children aged between five and twelve years of age. The program is designed to run every year of a young person’s education for eight weeks of the year and is meant to be run specifically to support the existing school curriculum. Each year the groups study all eight themes, and the students build on their knowledge year-on-year. This little and often approach to learning is the best way to create habits which will last a lifetime.

Kara: What’s a typical Butterfly Effect session like?

Sarah: All Butterfly Effect activities are designed to be led by the class teacher or STEAM leader. Teachers can connect with a Jacobs mentor if they need some support in the delivery of the program or if they want them to engage with students. The young people seem particularly interested to engage during the “jobs of the future” theme and our mentors have brought learning to life by appearing virtually in the classroom to take questions on their job and what their role may look like in the future. The activities range from practical experiments on things like the rate of melting ice, to story writing on habitats and the establishment of a school uniform swap shop. We encourage the young people to take this newfound knowledge home with them via homework extension suggestions.

Kara: As well as being an education program, the Butterfly Effect is a behavior change initiative. How does this work?

Sarah: With the Butterfly Effect, we don’t want to simply drop into the classroom, deliver a lecture and then leave again. We know that this is of limited benefit to the students. By employing established learning models, we keep sustainability at the front of the young person’s mind for eight weeks, every year, for seven years. This increases the chance of embedding the idea of sustainable choices into the student’s thought process. Hopefully, this will lead to young people moving forward in life thinking carefully about what to buy or eat, how to travel and how they can live their lives with sustainability at the heart of their thinking. We believe that with information and inspiration, the next generation can make a real difference towards combatting climate change and creating a more sustainable global community.

Kara: How can people learn more about the Butterfly Effect?

Sarah: Visit to learn more and engage with the program.

As part of our PlanBeyond 2.0 strategy, we’ve set a target to engage our workforce in 50,000 hours of global STEAM volunteering that enhances diversity and inspires the next generation by 2025. Employees can also volunteer on company time for four hours a year to participate in STEAM volunteering activities.

Want to help us create a more connected, sustainable world? We’re always looking for dynamic and engaged people to join our team. Bring your passion, your ingenuity and your vision. Let’s see the impact we can create, together. Search for opportunities to join #OurJacobs.