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‘A-level students can achieve extraordinary things with practical research projects, given the chance’

Mat Hickman, programme manager for informal science learning at the Wellcome Trust, writes:

  • "The effects of paracetamol and aspirin on C. elegans worms"
  • "How does caffeine affect reproduction and fertility?"
  • "The effects of ethanol and methanol upon the fruit fly – Drosophila melanogaster"

What do you think: research projects carried out at universities? By undergraduates, at the very least, perhaps even a PhD project? Think again: these are examples of practical research projects carried out by 17- and 18-year-old students at Peter Symonds College in Winchester who are studying for Extended Project Qualifications (EPQs).

The EPQ was introduced in 2007 to give A-level students the chance to extend their studies through a self-directed piece of project work. The qualification assesses both the final report of the project and the process that the student goes through to create it. The qualification lends itself to a useful interdisciplinary approach, and while we are not aware of any universities asking specifically for EPQs yet, some do lower their offer to students applying with one. EPQs are now taken by about one in ten A-level students, with 30,000 certificates awarded in 2013 (across England, Wales and Northern Ireland). In that year, the vast majority of EPQ entries (over 90 per cent) came from state-funded schools and colleges.

EPQs provide a golden opportunity for students to extend and enhance their appreciation and experience of experiments in science. However, anecdotal evidence has suggested that relatively few students chose science-focused EPQs that include practical work. The Wellcome Trust, working with awarding organisations, surveyed a large number of schools and colleges offering EPQs to better understand how many students focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) research questions, and what proportion of those actually include practical, hands-on experiments.

Our preliminary findings for this year’s EPQ entries suggest that the pattern of focus is different from the pattern of A-level choices. Out of 270 schools and colleges who responded to the survey, biology was the most popular Stem subject (about one in seven of all projects), followed by physics (one in 15), technology and engineering (about one in 20 each), then chemistry (one in 25), and finally maths (only one in 40). Contrast this with the popularity of different A-levels in 2013 where maths was most popular (studied by one in four A-level students), followed by biology (one in five), chemistry (one in six) and then physics (one in nine). We hope that this pattern of EPQ choice does not reflect real or perceived barriers to project work in Stem subjects.

Interestingly, those subjects that were more popular as an EPQ tended to have a smaller proportion of projects incorporating a practical element. Of EPQs focussing on technology or engineering around one in two projects had a practical component; chemistry projects had one in six; physics projects one in 10, and just one in 20 for biology projects. Given the central role of experimental work to science, too few Stem projects incorporate practical work and we would like to understand why.

One perceived barrier could be around access to suitable facilities, resources and experts to advise on practical projects. It is worth noting that universities are often well positioned to advise on practical approaches and can help contextualise questions around contemporary issues in Stem research; they are also increasingly proactive and keen to work with local schools. For instance, the Authentic Biology project, led by Simon Langton Grammar School in Kent and funded by the Wellcome Trust, offers an insight into what is possible. The project links schools with local universities to support students undertaking original research, including the students at Peter Symonds College.

The Universities of Manchester and Hertfordshire also offer extensive EPQ support. Similarly, Stem ambassadors can also help students to identify, design and plan their project. Although these key components of the EPQ must be led by the student, the awarding organisations have confirmed that students can seek expert advice.

A-level students can achieve extraordinary things with practical research projects, given the chance. At the Wellcome Trust we believe that EPQs can provide that chance, and we want to support teachers and students who undertake them. We have started by collating a range of EPQ resources and establishing a dedicated group on the National STEM Centre website, and we would love to hear from any teachers who have further ideas to share.


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