In touch with the real thing

29th December 2000 at 00:00
There are many ways schools can reinforce the relevance and interest of science, says Nigel Collins

School students and their teachers should be brought into contact with scientists working in research institutes, industry and universities. This is, after all, where real science happens. There is a multitude of schemes to support such contact, some of which are listed below.

At Kings Charles I comprehensive school in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, we have developed all sorts of contacts with scientists over the past 15 years, some through these schemes, some through our own initiative. We wanted to bring before students something of the excitement of science as it is happening.

A former student, Shelley Davies, worked with us in the autumn term through the Biosciences Researcher in Residence Scheme. She read biomedical science at the University of Wolverhampton and is now in the second year of her PhD in neuroscience at Sheffield University. After a preliminary visit to the school she devised a series of activities about sensitivity: two tests on touch, one on olfaction.

On her two-day visit, Shelley ran one long workshop for A-level biology students and six one-hour workshops for Year 11 students, aimed to coincide with their learning about the nervous system. She introduced each session with a short talk about her research and then described how the tests would be done by an oral surgeon, checking nerve function after damage to a person's jaw, either through impact or when having a tooth extracted.

The class then split into four groups, spending 10 minutes on each of the three activities, followed by a session on the Neuroscience for Kids website (http:faculty.washington.educhudlerneurok.html). The tests were slight modifications of those appearing in biology textbooks but Shelley was able to put them in the much more exciting context of her research.

Because the students were in small groups, it was easy for Shelley to interact directly with them as they carried out the tests. In all, she had contact with 180 students in two days. Why is such contact important? After all, a science teacher could have run similar activities. Shelley Davies sums it up: "It was a former pupil coming into school to talk with my A-level set about her experiences on research placements during her biochemistry degree course who convinced me that I wanted to go to university to study biomedical science. She was so enthusiastic."

The pupils cannot stop talking about their own encounter with Shelley, a "real scientist". "Shelley's work is fascinating," says one student. "She has really set me thinking about where I mght be in five or six years time." She will be back to work with them later in the year, focusing on careers in research.

The Researchers in Residence Scheme is a wonderful notion - but it reaches relatively few schools. As the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry plan activities for the Year of Science from 2001-2002, active encouragement of, and financial support for ex-students to go back into their schools to interact with current students and teachers would pay off. It could stimulate more students to do science and engineering courses.

The Nuffield Science Bursary scheme offers students much more direct contact with research. Schools select suitable candidates: those with aptitude and enthusiasm, willing to devote four to six weeks of the summer holiday to a project. Local science and technology regional organisations (SATROs) administer bursaries but it can take quite a bit of a teacher's time to secure placements. Many students taking bursaries enter their work for the CREST Awards. Two of our students, Alex Hellawell and Richard Anderson, who received Gold CREST Awards, spent the summer working in Birmingham. Alex in Year 12 worked with data downloaded from the SOHO satellite, in a project devised with Professor George Simnett of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Birmingham University. Alex was so infected by Professor Simnett's enthusiasm and worked so well on examining some newly discovered features of solar activity that he and the professor are starting work on a joint research paper in the spring.

Richard Anderson's bursary was awarded for work in clinical chemistry in Birmingham Women's Hospital. He concentrated on improvements in assessing the protein content of urine from pregnant women. This project has been the subject of short talks and displays at our school open evening as well as in the main science area.

In one of our school's own initiatives, eight A-level students - four English and four biology - together with 40 Year 10 students and a group from Year 9, were involved in our science through drama project. After a weekend workshop at St Thomas's Hospital in London these students worked with a playwright, supported through e-mail consultation by clinical scientists at Guy's, Kings and St Thomas's hospitals in London. We also formed partnerships with Y Touring theatre company and the Royal National Theatre education department.

The students developed a performance piece that explores the challenges and opportunities for society posed by developments in medicine. The resulting play, "Talking Bollocks", written by Stacey Lidgate (A-level science), supported by Emma Jenkins (A-level English), was performed by students at The Royal Society in March and at St Thomas's Hospital in June.

Year 10 student Hayley Smith says: "It was a great privilege to go to the Royal Society to meet and perform in front of so many important people."

This project has also involved Mo Wood, our drama teacher. Her comment after a year of contact with scientists says a lot: "To my surprise, scientists are as exciting a bunch of enthusiasts to be with as a bunch of actors."

Nigel Collins is head of biology at King Charles I School, Kidderminster. He edits 'Catalyst', a GCSE Science magazine for 14 to 16-year-olds.


Science Education Partnerships provides grants for projects in which a research scientist or an engineer works in partnership with a school. Contact: Kirsty Brown, The Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG. Tel: 0207 451 2561. E-mail: . Web: Researchers in Residence Scheme enables PhD students to work with schools in diverse ways for four days. Physical Sciences: Contact: Marilyn Brodie, e-mail: contact: Rob Grayson, e-mail: Nuffield Science Bursaries are for Year 12 students following Advanced GCE or Vocational Qualifications in Science to work on on a research project, often with support of research scientists. Student grant of pound;65 per week . Contact: Nuffield Bursaries are administered by your local SATRO, addresses from: e-mail: Teacher Scientist Networks involve long-term partnerships. Contact: Norfolk area: Frank Chennell, John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park. E-mail area, Eric Albone at Clifton Scientific TrustUniversity of Bristol E-mail: eric.albone Nuffield Science Bursaries for Teachers. Bursaries of pound;1,000 for state school teachers to work with scientists and engineers. A pilot scheme, with extension under discussion. Find out more at: Contact: Andrew Hunt, The Nuffield Foundation, e-mail: Gatsby Teacher Fellowships enable teachers of science, mathematics and design and technology to develop further their contribution to the effective and inspirational teaching of their subject. Honorarium of pound;1000 and up to pound;2000 to cover specific costs, such as supply cover or materials. Contact: Yvonne Pinto, Gatsby Technical Education Project, 47 Red Lion Court, London EC3A 3EN. E-mail Web:

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