Turning secondary school children into research scientists

By Ed Yong | November 3, 2010 7:55 am


Schools are a breeding ground for both intelligent young minds and virulent diseases. Andrew Conlan from the University of Cambridge has found a way to unite both. Conlan is interested in mathematically modelling the spread of infectious diseases. Between 2007 and 2009, he tried to instil the same interests in schoolchildren, while turning them into research assistants.

His work was part of the Motivate Project, a programme that provided educational resources to schools to show them how maths relates to real life and topical issues. People like Conlan were a key part of the project. They took part in videoconferences with students from several schools, who had the chance to interact with working mathematicians and share ideas with one another. Similar outreach projects are taking place throughout the world but Conlan’s work went above and beyond, going from outreach to actual research.

Through the videoconferences, he worked with secondary school students (aged 13 to 15) to create a questionnaire designed to analyse how primary school students socialise with one another. These social patterns have rarely been studied in a rigorous, quantitative way, but they’re vital if we’re to understand how infections like chicken pox or flu spread through this vulnerable group.

The secondary schoolers wrote their questions so that they would collect useful data while being easy to understand. Once that was done, they went out to primary schools themselves and administered the same questionnaires that they had conceived. They became field scientists.

“I think the students first reaction to the project was quiet, and polite, bafflement at why we were so interested in gathering this sort of information!” says Conlan. “This slowly turned into increasing engagement and excitement as they began to collect their own data, build their own networks and think about how the diseases might spread through the social networks they were collecting.”

The timing helped. During the second year of the project, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic hit the scene. “As you would imagine this brought a completely new dimension to the project,” says Conlan. “School closures being actively discussed in the media really brought the relevance of the data… home to them.”

The students (and their teachers) contributed a lot of time and effort towards the project, and their skills were essential to the project’s success. They had more direct access to primary schools, which made it much easier to recruit enough students for the final survey. They had local knowledge of school structure and culture. Being of a similar age, they had a closer rapport with the primary schoolers.

The result was a project of incredible scope. Together, Conlan and his student recruits sampled 75 complete primary school classes from 11 different schools, with nearly a 90 per cent response rate. The results aren’t surprising: boys and girls were strikingly segregated with very little communication between them, and they formed tight cliques that became tighter with age. But the strength of the study isn’t in any single groundbreaking result, but in accumulating a set of data that is “unrivalled in scope, size and detail”. Conlan hopes that it will prove useful in future studies for years to come.

In the Motivate Project, the secondary schoolers were more than intelligent enough to understand understanding the difficult concepts involved in the epidemiology of diseases and how mathematical models can describe those diseases. They were interested enough to give up time in their lunch breaks and after-school hours to process questionnaire forms. And they were resourceful enough to design a useful research tool and use it to collect data.

At the end of the first year, they even visited the University of Cambridge to present their own data at the Department of Applied Mathematics. “The quality of these presentations, really demonstrated the dedication that the children had to their own research by the end of the project,” says Conlan.

Schoolchildren are indeed a chronically underestimated bunch but fortunately, a new generation of science outreach initiatives have realised that. They treat children not as simple-minded, easily-bored vessels to be filled, but as eager, intelligent people to be engaged. Have a look at the amazing I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here for another stand-out example.

Conlan has the right idea. “I think it’s incredibly important for those of us working in research to foster and encourage the next generation of scientists. In the current era of spending cuts and rising fees for students, it’s more important than ever to communicate what we do and encourage young people to consider careers in academia.”

Reference: Proc Roy Soc B http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.1807

Photo: by Bootload

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Comments (7)

  1. Lovely post about a lovely project, thanks for sharing it.

    Not sure I agree 100% with the last quote. Or rather, I agree, but I’d add a whole agree 100% to something else that’s not mentioned either (and really should be…).

    Personally, I’d argue the schoolkids who don’t grow up to be scientists are some of the most important people such projects can touch.

    Involving young people in science isn’t just about inspiring the next generation of scientists. Most people who do school science won’t be scientists and it is really important that the science education system serves them too. People who don’t end up as scientists should still have a good science education, and not simply look back on it as something they were rubbish at or hated. They should have an idea of what scientists do all day – it demystifies science, makes scientists more trustworthy (i.e. helps against “anti-science”) and also easier to argue with (i.e. helps against over credulity to what “scientists say…”).

    (wrote a blogpost about this for CiF a couple of months back but despite the fact they acutally asked me to write the thing, they never ran it. Might tweek and re-post on my own blog at some point. Sophia Collins also made a really good speech on a similar point at the Beyond Blogging event).

  2. Absolutely! The UK is no longer suffering from the ‘Brain Drain’, it’s like a ‘Brain Drought’ – kids (in general) don’t seem that interested in science subjects anymore. Sure – there are still a few good teachers around that can really engage their students, but to most kids, science is boring.

    I just wish the Motivate Project was running 30 years ago – perhaps I’d be a scientist now (I always wanted to be a mad one!)

  3. In the US, these types of programs tend to target the group that has already been selected for “gift and talented” classes, fostering attitudes of elitism among science/math interested kids. I agree with Alice that the inclusion of all kids, not just math/science interested ones, in projects like this provide a more balanced approach to such projects. After all, the kids who aren’t math/science interested in their early years may well control the grant money and research funds in 20 years. Who better to ask for it than their old friend from grammar school?

  4. Shade

    Agreed with the above.
    Children’s only limitations are what people will give them and vocabulary.
    I have explained complicated biological systems to a 6 year old, she understood -she didn’t just memorize- and explained it back to me. I explained it in terms she was comfortable with and she had no issues.

    Kids just need to be givin the ideas indescriminantly and let them decide what interests them, if people were patient with them they would see that these kids can understand very well.

    Thanks Ed.

  5. Shade

    Agreed with the above.
    Children’s only limitations are what people will give them and vocabulary.
    I have explained complicated biological systems to a 6 year old, she understood -she didn’t just memorize- and explained it back to me. I explained it in terms she was used to and she had no issues.
    I have also explained newtonian laws to several children under the age of 10.

    Kids just need to be givin the ideas indescriminantly and let them decide what interests them, if people were patient with them they would see that these kids can understand very well.

    Thanks Ed.

  6. Janet Liu

    Well this is interesting and seems worthwhile but in education just as in medicine, lots of things seem like they might work but… don’t produce any lasting effects.

    The basic idea here–get kids to connect science with their everyday lives–has been around for decades. It is more or less the conventional wisdom answer to the question “How do you get kids more interested in pursuing studies of science?”. And it has been tried in many different ways in thousands of schools. Uh…. where are the results to demonstrate that it has some sort of effect beyond just getting the kids to say “Cool!”?

    Same question can be asked about science museums like the Exploratorium, btw. Do trips to the Exploratorium really affect kids’ desire to work hard in their science classes? It seems plausible enough that donors can be talked into giving millions of dollars to these things, but maybe they should be a bit more empirical and demand some actual data. Randomized intervention trials would be optimal, but even lacking that, at least how about some survey data on people who do pursue science to try to see what factors are associated with choice of science as a career?


  7. Eleanor

    In secondary school, I remember some scientists from the University of Leicester coming and doing one of those CSI style outreach things where you run DNA gels to find out the murder suspect (woo). It wasn’t the science side of it that stuck with me so much as a) it was simple, yet we got good results (hey, maybe science isn’t so baffling after all) and b) the people running the project didn’t have two heads and weren’t weird (and maybe I could also be a scientist). Personally, it was a pretty formative experience for me, yet only took about 3 hours to run, and I even applied to Leicester on the back of it ( I guess the rest of school was so dull, these things stand out).

    Sigh, have to go stop a gel running. Damn Leicester and their stupid outreach! If it hadn’t been for them, I might have got a proper job.


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