Get up and atom with some smashing tasks

2nd October 2015 at 01:00
Ditch the Bunsen burners and fire up the Large Hadron Collider, because real-world research is the way to hook students on science

“It’s like playing at being Nasa or the European Space Agency, but they’re not really playing. They’re doing the real thing.”

I’ve spent a decade developing student-led research projects in schools, so when Nasa and Cern collaborator Professor Lawrence Pinsky said this to me, I was thrilled. That’s because science education in the UK is missing a crucial element: the excitement and relevance of working on real projects that could change the world. His comments gave me confidence that I had found a solution.

Of course, students do experiments all the time in schools. However, these rarely replicate real-world projects or tackle ongoing real-world problems. Students don’t get a true taste of modern science.

And for teachers who love science, it can be demoralising to have to do the same old experiments over and over again – we crave something original. To truly enthuse about our subject, our own interest needs to be piqued and our skills challenged.

We need to tackle the issue quickly. Despite a widely acknowledged need for more science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) graduates, the number of students taking science A-levels has plateaued this year. And the long-standing difficulty in persuading girls to enter the physics lab persists.

Scientists go back to school

This is where conducting research in schools comes in. For 10 years now, I have been trying to find a way to bring original research with real-world importance and conditions into schools – or, more specifically, sixth forms. This should be a tough task at a time of dwindling budgets, but partnerships have made the process surprisingly easy.

And now the project as a whole is being overseen by the newly formed Institute for Research in Schools. Under its umbrella, dozens of university-based researchers are collaborating with students and teachers on school-based projects. There is real enthusiasm among the doctoral researchers and professors I’ve been fortunate to work with, especially the handful of inaugural scientific officers who developed the first projects with students that have now become national collaborations.

For example, at the school where I work, space and atmospheric physicist Dr Jonathan Eastwood from Imperial College London is working with students to examine cosmic rays, as part of a project called the Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector (Lucid). Students are processing data from a detector based on a satellite in low-Earth orbit to discover more about space weather. In the process, they are increasing our knowledge of how we can protect ourselves against solar storms (see panel, right, for other projects).

“Lucid’s research-quality data will be of direct interest and use to the wider science community, while allowing students to engage in real research, studying the basic physics of how space weather works,” Eastwood says.

“Right now, we are developing new space missions which won’t arrive at their targets until the mid-to-late 2020s and beyond. So another really good reason to work with the students is so they can learn about these new missions and the future of space exploration in the knowledge that, when they are older, they will be the research scientists working on them.”

The projects run outside curriculum time in an extra-activities slot or in sixth form as part of students’ work towards their Extended Project Qualification. Different projects require different equipment but our partners try to help where they can. For example, the Science and Technology Facilities Council has generously funded particle detectors – just like those used in the Large Hadron Collider – for about 50 UK schools involved in the CERN@school collaboration. What’s more, any school can access CERN@school data – including that from the Lucid experiment – through the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid online (see wlcg-public.web.cern.ch). It’s then up to students to choose what to do with that data.

It is truly exciting stuff and, more importantly, it is proving hugely beneficial. I have found that this type of work raises student aspirations and encourages young people to continue studying Stem-based subjects.

Giving students the opportunity to experience the thrill of discovery, along with the excitement and challenge of not knowing what the answers are, brings their subject to life. It also allows young people to contribute their many skills and insights to the scientific community. That instils a high level of confidence – one that’s difficult to achieve by other teaching means.

Refreshing stale courses

Meanwhile, the teachers involved tell me how personally rejuvenating it is to work on original experiments. It has also led, they say, to more students in participating schools opting for university courses.

This isn’t a replacement for what is already happening in science classrooms; it is an additional – crucial – element that has been missing. But while I ardently believe that this approach is of great benefit to students and colleagues, this on its own isn’t enough hard evidence. After all, as well as being a teacher, I am a scientist by training, so I have to ask: how much can students benefit from starting original research in school?

To begin answering that question, and to explore further how these projects can be integrated into schools, was why I founded the Institute for Research in Schools. Our first aim is to expand the programme in terms of participating schools and projects; our second is to begin the process of evaluating the whole venture. We are developing the structures and evaluation mechanisms to make this happen, and we need your help: colleagues who are interested in gathering evidence for the impact of research in schools are particularly welcome.

This is a time of lively debate about what constitutes the best preparation for continuing to study science at a higher level. The research in schools programme should be central to that discussion. It’s taken a long time, but I believe the opportunity to work on real, practical experiments is the best way we to inspire students to study science.

Professor Becky Parker is a teacher at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Kent and director of the new Institute for Research in Schools

Get involved

The Institute for Research in Schools welcomes new partner schools and colleges with sixth-form students. Please email beckyparker@researchinschools.org to register your interest. Find out more at www.researchinschools.org

Other research in schools projects

Student researchers are examining a key protein in the development of multiple sclerosis and are hoping to find out more about the cause of the neurological condition.

One group is working with scientists at the Large Hadron Collider on the hunt for new particles.

Authentic Biology is a Wellcome Trust-backed project that supports a number of school-university partnerships in real biomedical research projects.

In a plant-science project, Genetic Research On Wheat (Grow), students are fully characterising a semi-dwarfing gene that has the potential to enable breeders to develop new drought-tolerant wheat strains; one outcome would be to help address the challenge of global food security.

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