GeoBus clocks up the miles

5th July 2013 at 01:00
A travelling earth sciences project has found its way to nearly 15,000 students. Julia Belgutay reports

Polarising microscopes, infrared cameras and accelerometers are rarely found in most Scottish schools. But that all changes when GeoBus comes to town.

An educational programme run by the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of St Andrews, GeoBus - a van packed with high-tech equipment and earth science experts - has travelled hundreds of miles to reach more than 120 schools and almost 15,000 students since its launch last year.

GeoBus, the brainchild of Dr Ruth Robinson, a geologist at the university, was set up to give students the chance to experience real research, using professional equipment, and give them a glimpse of the wide range of careers in earth sciences.

"I started the project because of the lack of earth science education in Scotland and the further loss of higher geology in 2015," Dr Robinson said. She hopes GeoBus will inspire young learners to consider careers related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects and become a bridge between schools, universities, research councils and employers.

"A lot of students don't really have a vision, or knowledge of careers, particularly in earth science. Our sponsors very much want the careers information to be delivered in schools."

Subjects that are often difficult, if not impossible, to explore fully in the classroom are suddenly accessible once the GeoBus team - including coordinator Kathryn Roper and her assistant Charlotte Pike - arrive.

Schools can choose from workshops delivered in the classroom, which include "The Magic of Minerals", "Fundamentals of Rocks", "Monitoring Volcanoes", "A Journey to Mars - meet Curiosity" and "Drilling for Oil". Each one is delivered through practical activities and developed to support cross-curricular learning as part of Curriculum for Excellence. GeoBus staff discuss with teachers the most appropriate content for each age group.

The workshop on volcanoes allows children to see an infrared camera in action and to learn how these are used by scientists to monitor volcanic activity.

The class on earthquakes involves equipment used to measure their strength - sometimes tested by students imitating the motion, by jumping up and down, and watching how the machine reacts.

In Drilling for Oil, aimed at S3 and S4, children are given different roles within an oil company and tasked with identifying offshore oil fields for development from seismic data provided by industry partners.

In the Magic of Minerals workshop students use polarising microscopes normally used by undergraduate students at St Andrews, to identify different minerals, and learn about the geological settings in which those minerals form, and their characteristics.

Handouts, teacher instructions and basic rock and mineral sets are left with the schools after the visit so that students can continue to work on the topics.

The experts also bring in a collection of rocks and minerals. "It is all rather beautiful when you look down those microscopes - and the students really like it," Dr Robinson said.

Calum Cunningham, a 5th year student at Ullapool High, took part in a minerals workshop at his school last month as part of his geology class. "It was great looking through the microscopes," he said, explaining that by polarising the light in them, the colours of the minerals in the rock sample changed from greys and browns to a variety of colours, allowing students to identify each mineral.

GeoBus experts then explained what the shapes of the minerals they were looking at, and the different colours revealed by the microscopes, told students about how the rocks had been formed.

Calum is eager to take part in another workshop in future. "In class you just talk about minerals," he said. "But here you get to look through the microscope and actually identify them."

GeoBus also supports field trips, and can take groups of up to 15 students to sites such as an area between Macduff and Portsoy, where students can find rocks, and from identifying the minerals they contain, calculate how deep below the earth's surface the rocks were when they were formed, and how high the temperature was at the time.

Ullapool headteacher Peter Harrison said GeoBus has visited the school a number of times to hold a variety of workshops for different age groups, and had also taken some pupils on a field trip.

"They bring expertise I suspect many schools do not easily have on tap," Mr Harrison said. "I could see my students making connections with earth science I doubt they had made before.

"I think particularly if schools don't have their own expertise in the earth sciences it is a great way to start building that."

The GeoBus team is often accompanied by students from St Andrews whose presence, scientists believe, benefits the schoolchildren and the undergraduates.

Dr Robinson said: "Some of the schools we visit have children who would never have considered studying at St Andrews," she said. "This opens their eyes to the possibility."

GeoBus is predominantly funded by industry partners with an interest in stimulating young people's interest in earth sciences, such as Centrica Energy, Dana Petroleum, Maersk Oil and Shell, as well as the Natural Environment Research Council.

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