'We need more "real science" in our schools'

Many students and teachers are already on the frontline of scientific discovery, writes Professor Becky Parker

Science champion: Professor Becky Parker, director at the Institute for Research in Schools

By 2024 we need to be training 186,000 engineers every year to keep up with demand. And the bottom line is that we are not doing nearly enough to make a mark on those figures.

But, given the chance, we know that school students relish the opportunity to roll their sleeves up and get involved in "real science".

This was the theme of the third anniversary celebration for the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), where luminaries of the science community gathered to hear about the contribution that school students are making to groundbreaking scientific discovery.

A huge range of students – from Year 5s to graduated alumni of IRIS – presented their research work with enthusiasm, confidence and authority. They gave talks and spoke with great maturity and excitement to the gathered guests from the world of science and education in an exhibition of their work.

Through IRIS, these students’ teachers and technicians run a range of research projects in schools across the country. These phenomenal research mentors are scientists in the school laboratory: they help their students negotiate the complexities of genome annotation with the Genome Decoders project, mine the Spitzer Space Telescope data for interesting targets in preparation for the James Webb Space Telescope or help analyse the impact of biodiversity on mental health.

Teachers and technicians have professional CPD that is, in some cases, quite literally out of this world. To say they love it would be an understatement.

Students have the chance to feel genuinely included in science where they can make a valuable and meaningful contribution. It gives them agency and confidence that they have a valuable part to play in the scientific community. The act of researching develops such a range of skills in students such as teamwork, collaboration and data analysis skills. Perhaps most importantly, it sparks a love of science and discovery – something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Science that is out of this world

In supporting research scientists across a range of fields, they are not only inspiring the next generation but collaborating with them too. University researchers and research institutes have found this approach effective not only in engagement but also in generating new ideas.

Professor Alan Barr, of the University of Oxford, describes his experience in partnering with IRIS:

“I’m really excited that the Higgs Hunters project, which I initially with some others set up with a particular goal in mind, has morphed into something that’s been taken in so many different directions by so many different students. There’s no way that we ourselves could have even come up with all of the questions that these students are asking. So, we’re getting so much more value out of this data from CERN, because of the independent and creative ways in which these students are thinking about it. It’s just fantastic.”

Wonderful resonances emerge and enable collaborations across schools to develop. For example, students from Richard Taylor Primary School in Harrogate have been investigating viking poo with Dr Andrew Jones at the York Archaeological Trust. They had found whipworm eggs in the poo, which coincidentally links to another of the projects that IRIS offers to schools – genome decoders, in which school students annotate the whipworm genome in an attempt to help cure a debilitating childhood disease that affects millions of children in subtropical countries.

Another project – MELT – helps students to actively reduce their carbon footprint. Here, students in Year 9 have been engaging their local primary schools in approaches to carbon reduction. This project also enables students to analyse Earth Observation data to look at calving of glaciers.

As students across the country are finding their voice in the action against climate change, we give them strategies for reducing their carbon output and they think of innovative approaches to tackle carbon reduction in their schools and local communities.

Students from the Sir Robert Woodard Academy in Lancing presented their work on MELT to the assembled guests, whilst a Chipping Campden School student had the great pleasure of talking with the BBC science editor, who described her work on MELT as a “phenomenal piece of work”.

This is ground-breaking work. And it is happening here in our schools.

In music or the arts, students have a chance to showcase their work with ownership of the subject. Through IRIS, students are able to do the same in science, where they can exhibit their flair, curiosity and imagination. Science needs young people to embrace creativity and think outside the box to tackle the challenges that the planet faces.

If young people are asking questions, questioning their results and developing resilience, this sets them up for tackling science in the real world as well as giving them that thrill of looking at new data which nobody has set eyes on.  

As Lord Martin Rees said when we launched IRIS three years ago: “Not only will schools and universities benefit but science itself will benefit.”

And today, we see teachers and technicians making this a reality with flair, passion and energy.

Surely this is what a science education should be about? And how much more attractive for a teacher is this experience of teaching and learning science together with students? A number of brilliant alumni also spoke about how doing research had inspired them in their careers. They are now mentoring the younger generation and showing them the world that science opens up for them.

We need more scientists – everyone is agreed on that. But to have more scientists, we need more “real science” in schools. IRIS is proud to be playing our part.

Professor Becky Parker is the director at the Institute for Research in Schools

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