Few school students can do real research, but every year 600 get the chance. Frances Farrer reports.
Giving up between four and six weeks of the summer holidays to do advanced scientific research in a professional establishment: who but the most dedicated 16+ pupil would entertain such an idea? Yet each year about 600 bright A-level students from around the country who win Nuffield bursaries face serious competition to do just that.
Michael Sargent co-ordinates research projects at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill, north London. He says: "People who are lateral thinkers tend to succeed in this field."
The Division of Developmental Biology at the NIMR is one of eight related establishments to offer these research placements; there are more than 250 project providers in the country. Dr Sargent believes they offer "huge enrichment. Students get a taste of working independently in a laboratory, and then presenting their work. Certain methodologies are only available because of the equipment we have here". These include determining the base sequence of DNA, fluorescence microscopy, and a great deal of molecular biology, such as splicing genes.
Bursaries of up to pound;70 a week go towards covering lost holiday job earnings. Students are drawn from local areas; in Mill Hill, this includes Henrietta Barnet school, where Sarah Jenkins is head of science. She points to electrophoresis, a technique to separate DNA or proteins, as an example of something that cannot be undertaken in even the best school laboratory.
All students on NIMR research placements do this. Their work is entirely practical and, says Dr Sargent, half of this year's bursary winners made discoveries that will be published.
One of these discoveries was the identification of a gene which helps evade the immune response to the malaria organism. The research was done on mice and will be published in full in a few years' time, when it is complete.
There are social aspects too. Ms Jenkins says when the students return to school "they talk the rest of their class through the experiments", explaining in detail what they did and how they did it. "The other students are more eager to question their peers," she says. Many are keen to enhance their CVs. "It's the UCAS time of year and the research experience gives them something to talk about that shows commitment and involvement."
One of the Henrietta Barnet girls spent four weeks working in the mammalian development division of NIMR. She said she found it "very exciting". The specialised equipment had indeed enabled a different level of investigation. "I could work directly on polymerase chain reaction, which enables areas of DNA sequencing to be amplified. You read about it, but you can't always get to do it." She had been well supervised. "I had loads of questions, and we all got attention every day. I was learning new techniques and we got a lot done."
Supervision of students by younger scientists in their 20s and 30s is another bonus. Clare Davy began the study of bacterial genetics in 1994 on the same scheme at the John Innis Institute. "The summer school enabled me to interact with full-time scientists. My teachers didn't have the resources to offer this experience."
Dr Davy's bursary project served not only to show her the reality of the discipline, but also to choose an appropriate university. She believes the placements offer is "an excellent opportunity to decide whether you want a career in science", and nowadays she herself visits local schools to talk about professional possibilities. "As we're in the midst of it, we can be more immediate. The pace of research means that science teachers are soon out of date with what's going on." Teachers also get a lot out of contact with practising scientists.
Nuffield students are required to record their work on large posters professionally illustrated with computer graphics, and back at school present their findings to their class, the science society, and sometimes even their parents. Sarah Jenkins says: "Past winners have done a great job explaining. The year below find it clarifying and their year group peers are very impressed."
Michael Sargent believes the scheme benefits "the interface between local schools and the real thing". Precision of method and clarity of writing up are paramount, as is the translation of scientific work into comprehensible language.
Nuffield Science Bursaries have been offered since 1995 and were initially promoted by Caroline McGrath, who has since retired, but maintains involvement with school science associations. "We wanted youngsters to understand the world of high-quality research and the nature of science", she says, citing the chance to sandwich medical research into a doctor's career as an option which might not have been thought possible.
"Few people realise that you can mix research with a more practical hands-on career. This is a chance to change students' perception."
Nuffield: Up to pound;70 a week is offered for first year post-16 students to work with scientists and engineers within organisations including museums, hospitals, zoos, universities and commercial research establishments. Usually four to six weeks. The scheme is co-ordinated regionally. General information and list of regional co-ordinators to whom to apply from Linda Westgarth, Nuffield Curriculum Centre, 28 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3JS. Tel: 020 7636 4612; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students may arrange their own project placement, with their science teacherlecturer's help, in an organisation whose work interests them.
Before making the application, teacherslecturers must discuss the suitability of the project with the regional co-ordinator. Otherwise students may apply for project placements that have been set up by their regional co-ordinator.
Cambridge also plays host to an annual Physics at Work event for up to 2,000 14 to 16-year-olds, mainly from East Anglia. This offers key stage 4 pupils a chance to meet scientists from industry and academia, and talk about how science affects everyday life. Next year's event runs from September 20-22. Dr Paula Martin, educational outreach officer for the department of physics at the University of Cambridge, can be contacted on tel: 01223 333318, or email: email@example.com. Special transport funding is available for groups from Excellence Clusters.
Association for Science Education: www.ase.org.uk Science museums, exhibitions and prizes, visit www.royalsoc.ac.uk