Losing sleep in the line of duty

29th December 1995 at 00:00
Caroline McGrath reports on pupils' award-winning research into health. Spiders, spots, caffeine and sleep all featured in research projects submitted for the new Health Matters Schools Award. The award is designed to stimulate an exciting approach to research in the classroom and is based on encouraging groups of key stage 3 and key stage 4 students to work in teams.

The competition, sponsored by SmithKline Beecham and organised and judged by the Association for Science Education, complements the new Health Matters gallery in the Science Museum which highlights some of the stories behind the development of modern medical technology, health care and medicine.

Judges were looking for clear evidence of team work, research and good science investigative skills (Sc1) as well as accuracy of facts and concepts and an eye-catching presentation. The research topic had to relate to the key stage 3 and 4 programmes of study for Life Processes and Living Things (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and Understanding Living Things and the Processes of Life (Scotland). A first and second prize was awarded in each of five regions throughout the United Kingdom. Special schools were encouraged to enter and prizes were awarded in this category.

The national winners were Bowring Comprehensive from Huyton in Merseyside, with their excellent project on the Importance of Sleep. The students brainstormed ideas and focused on the question, "Do you need sleep?" Their parents and teachers were always telling them they needed their sleep, but was this true? If sleep was so important, then a lack of it might affect your health.

The students started their project by finding out as many facts as they could about sleep from a wide variety of sources. They also made efforts to contact people running research projects on sleep, but this was not as successful as they hoped, as they were passed from one institution to another and only as the project was submitted did they get a positive response.

They then decided to select two teacher volunteers to act as guinea pigs for their experiments. Their science teacher, Sara Bennett, was allowed a full night's slumber and another science teacher, Alex Roper, had to forgo her sleep for the night.

The team devised a variety of tests to measure how well the subject was functioning. Motor tests (drawing stars when looking in a mirror and with hand covered), mental arithmetic, reaction time (dropping and catching a metre rule) and computer game dexterity were all tested before and after the night in question. Both subjects had been asked to keep a diary and record their thoughts. After only one night of sleep deprivation, Alex Roper under-performed when tested. Her diary, however, recorded that she did not think her performance was affected at all. From their experiments, the students concluded that you may not necessarily realise it, you do need sleep to remain healthy and function efficiently.

The project can be seen on display in the Health Matters Gallery at the Science Museum.

The national runners up were from Bishopshalt School in Hillingdon, with a project on Phobias - Mind Over Matter? They conducted research into students' reaction to spiders. Using sensors they recorded the eye movement, sweat, pulse rate and skin temperature of each subject under three conditions: when looking at a video of spiders; when looking at a house spider named Eight Ball; and when looking at Incy the Tarantula.

The students discovered a marked increase in monitored reactions between a subject looking at the video and the actual presence of a spider, and this reaction was also greater than the difference in response between looking at the spider and the tarantula. They concluded that the physical presence of the spider was what upset the subject; and that when the fear of spiders becomes obsessive and becomes a phobia, then the general health of the subject is affected.

Pupils at St George School in Bristol, regional winners in the South-west and Wales, tested antibacterial face washes that claim to prevent teenage spots in their project Zits: Spot the Facts; and a team from Thomas Mills High School in Framlington, Suffolk (regional winners in the Midlands and Anglia) looked at the effects of caffeine. Dorton House in Kent, a school for the blind, won the special educational needs category with a project on teeth.

The regional winning entries each won Pounds 250 for their science departments and a further Pounds 250 for a medical charity of their choice The national winners received a further Pounds 1,000 for their science department; the national runners-up Pounds 500. Special Certificates of Merit were awarded to schools whose project was of a very high standard but had narrowly missed winning a major prize. More than 1,200 Certificates of Participation were also awarded.

Further information about the 1996 Health Matters Schools Award can be obtained from Caroline McGrath, Field Officer - South-east, The Association for Science Education, The Runnymede Centre, Chertsey Road, Addlestone, Weybridge, Surrey KT15 2EP. Tel: 01932 567243

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