Many years ago the science undertaken in school was vastly different to the science I went on to experience in my professional career. The cutting edge of science seamed far away, and the knowledge was taught in the abstract, somewhat removed from how the scientific process actually works.
Teaching methodology and learning has evolved in leaps and bounds since those distant times, and teachers now have a range of activities and learning approaches which bring practical activity into the classroom. But how do we in Universities support teachers, ensuring that those projects help to give a sense of what current, cutting edge of research feels like as a career?
Research in Schools (RiS) programmes have started to emerge in the UK, and I’ve piloted such a programme at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Physics and Astronomy over the past two years. The aim is to raise awareness of the latest research questions, enable students to understand how research works and help the students conduct their own long-term research projects in collaboration with the university.
So far we’ve run two projects: one based on the cosmic rays which serve as the background to our neutrino experiments deep underground; and the other surrounding sound waves in space that can affect our satellite technology. The programme has grown slowly but surely from one school, to five and now 24 and through this process I’ve learned a lot. For that reason, I’ve written a report detailing the highlights, challenges, what did work and what didn’t along with a set of conclusions and recommendations for others thinking of setting up similar projects.
I’m not going to lie, Research in Schools projects require a significant amount of time and effort by everyone involved. Thankfully, we’ve found evidence so far that this effort is worthwhile. All students involved gained significantly greater understanding of scientific topics and practices relevant to the projects they were involved with. Moreover, the sorts of experiences the students had undertaking these 6-month long projects was overwhelmingly positive with “interesting”, “challenging” and “inspiring” being the top three most-quoted words used. Finally, they also recognised that they’d developed a large range of skills simply by taking part in the projects.
Not only the students benefited, their teachers also felt reconnected with their subject, the projects challenged them and they learned a lot through taking part. It also allowed them to develop a working relationship with the scientist that could be used to further support their scientific knowledge.
The important thing that I’ve found is that for these projects to be successful they need to be well structured and supported by the university throughout. The structure we’ve opted for starts with students working on a prescribed initial activity so that they can build confidence before being let loose into the open-ended world of research. This requires a good set of written resources too, for both students and teachers, along with all the hardware and software they might need. Once students are underway, the skills and expertise of current researchers is invaluable in steering their work on track so that they can produce results.
Speaking of results, we get our students to present these at their own scientific conference attended by fellow students, teachers, parents and researchers. It’s a great occasion and a simple-to-run celebration of what the students, teachers and researchers have achieved together.
If you would like to find out more or take part in these activities yourself, feel free to get in touch with me or contact the Institute for Research in Schools to find out about other programmes across the country.