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Succour for aspiring scientists

For schools struggling to provide the science baccalaureate, Nuffield bursaries can offer invaluable opportunities

For schools struggling to provide the science baccalaureate, Nuffield bursaries can offer invaluable opportunities

The grand pillared entrance in Edinburgh's New Town, the Great Hall with its towering columns and portraits of distinguished scientists, the magnificent Bodleian-style library - this is part of Scotland's scientific heritage, a place of learning with the feel of a gentleman's club.

But every summer, the Royal College of Physicians opens its doors to old and young - to boys and girls - as it welcomes a new generation of aspiring scientists from schools across the country to display their work and talk to academics, teachers and the public about their latest research.

This is the annual celebration of scientific investigations by almost a hundred 16- and 17-year-olds, funded by Nuffield bursaries. In the hall and library, a display of 97 panels presents their findings and conclusions.

It is an exhibition of remarkable opportunities. For four to six weeks over the summer, pupils can work in a university or industrial company, alongside professors, researchers and lab technicians in any of the sciences, engineering or maths. Their bursary pays them pound;80 a week and they deliver a written report with a glossy poster in return.

It is also an amazing chance for schools that cannot provide the new science baccalaureate, says chemistry teacher Chris Sneddon, of Dunfermline High.

"These days, with cuts in budgets, we couldn't put that sort of thing in place. It's easier to go down the straight Advanced Higher route, which we offer for all three sciences," he explains.

"The Nuffield allows pupils to work in a professional environment, developing skills they would develop in the baccalaureate."

Dunfermline High entered its first student for a bursary last year. Holly Burns, 16, was an enthusiast for volcanology, a hobby she picked up from her father when he took her to an open day at the British Geological Society in Edinburgh. Having got the bug, Holly worked there as a volunteer in the summer after third year. So when Mr Sneddon heard about the Nuffield bursaries, she was "an obvious choice".

Working with Sue Loughlin and Charlotte Vye of the BGS, Holly's topic was "Volcanic hazards at Meru Volcano, Tanzania". Its purpose was to develop a hazard assessment map of Mount Meru, to forecast the impact of a future eruption.

"Sue and Charlotte had a project in the office. My task was to find out the background, come up with previous eruptions and create a map," explains Holly.

"It was interesting finding out what sort of landscape was there before the volcano - how big it was before and after the eruption, how far the volcanic material erupted. This was around the 1800s. It covered the town of Arusha and it covered where the airport is now and the roads - it was several miles.

"Recently, there has been more activity," Holly continues. "Charlotte is there now - they are hoping to set up a geological survey. Because it's in Africa, they are low on facilities, there's very little technology for testing rocks and soil for acidity. They're hoping to make connections with local geologists."

Now in S5, Holly is doing Higher chemistry and geography and still benefits from her links with the geologists. "For Advanced Higher it will really help with my investigation," she says. She would like to do geology at university, then volcanology in Edinburgh.

Holly was younger than the usual S5-6 pupils who apply for bursaries, so the society devised a project that would suit her interests.

"This fitted into our project perfectly," says Dr Loughlin. "So we gave Holly a pilot study which we'll take forward. It was extremely helpful to get us moving in the right direction.

"The Nuffield projects in general are more scientific, with hypothesis testing. Holly was quite young, so we did volcanic hazards assessment. She was working with GIS (geographic information systems), going through historical records."

The geological society has worked with Nuffield bursaries before, and is going to try to do it every year now, says Dr Loughlin. "We don't have labs in our office, but we're hoping to link up with the university's geology department next door, which does have labs on site.

It is, she says, a fantastic opportunity - not just for the pupils, but for the scientists and organisations involved. She was "really impressed" when she went to the presentation last year.

"All the people and organisations offering students opportunities - seeing what everyone else is doing in different fields, who's involved - and seeing the pupils putting it across to non-specialists. They were fantastic," she says.


Every March, about 200 fifth and sixth-year pupils apply for Nuffield bursaries, says Frances Chapman, the co-ordinator for Scottish applicants at Aberdeen University. Last year, 97 bursaries were awarded.

There has been a dramatic increase in the past two to three years, as schools see the benefits of the scheme, she says: "real, good development work, experience, report writing, communication skills.

"Then at the celebration in Edinburgh (in September) they have to set up the poster display and talk to invited guests from a number of scientific backgrounds and experts in their field."

Afterwards, the students have the chance to enter their report for a Crest science award and can be put forward for the Big Bang science and engineering event.

"We also try to encourage the youngsters to take the initiative and set up projects themselves, particularly if they are thinking of doing the science baccalaureate in sixth year, as it could be used as part of the interdisciplinary project," says Dr Chapman. "They can continue their project in sixth year. One or two pupils are doing that this year through Forth Valley College."

In some cases, where students are not awarded a bursary, the host organisation may be happy to have them and help them anyway, she says; a student from Balfron High has done that.

Industries and universities outside the central belt are also involved, including the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney.

"Youngsters get terrific experience that they wouldn't get otherwise," says Dr Chapman, "meeting a variety of experts in science and engineering. They also get good learning skills and the chance to discuss career opportunities. It opens their eyes."


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