Scientists are increasingly using research based on data collected by school students to explore humanity’s impact on the planet. Matthew Jenkin explores the educational benefits
From the outside, the scientific community may seem impenetrable – an exclusive club where they check your PhD at the door. But many scientists owe more to the general public than you might imagine, and boffins are increasingly doing research based on data collected by school students.
Sixth form students from Wymondham High Academy in Norfolk were among amateur researchers from six schools in the area conducting experiments to see how plants resist a major wheat disease called Take-all.
Dr Paul Nicholson of the Norwich-based John Innis Centre sent the students seeds of Brachypodium, a plant used to study wheat. They learned how to grow the seeds in the classroom and then recorded the extent of root blackening caused by the infection with the aim of identifying resistant varieties.
Wymondham teacher Sara Caine, who led the initiative catchily named the Super model fights famine project, says the real hook for her and the students was that the work had never been done before. Pupils were motivated by the fact that they “weren’t churning out yet another experiment on page 80 of the textbook.”
The data students gathered proved valuable for scientists, and the students also got something out of it, many discovering a new-found love of an “unsexy” field of biology.
One student described the experiment as the most exciting one he’d ever done, while others said it had influenced their choice of degree subject. Caine explains that while children are interested in the animal sciences, the study of plants is crucial and neglecting plant diseases in the future will lead to major problems with food security. The project plays an important role in raising awareness of the issues.
Caine says the best way to start a similar project is to first find a scientist who is interested in working with the school, and will put in the time required. Funding may be another issue as materials can be costly. Partnership grants are available from the British Society for Plant Pathology, from whom Wymondham secured their funding.
For many children, learning about nature is fun because it involves going outside and getting your hands dirty. The Open Air Laboratories (Opal) project encourages people of all ages to do just that. The science initiative runs surveys across the UK with the aim of learning more about the state of our environment, and schools are encouraged to get involved.
Opal also provides easy-to-follow instructions for teaching students about their local environment, including the health of soil, the quality of air and how our actions affect our climate.
Students at La Sainte Union Catholic School, Highgate, London, took part in Opal surveys investigating the area’s air quality and the health of local trees. Through their hands-on experiments they identified different species of trees for the first time and discovered how to keep their leafy streets green and free from damaging insect infestations and diseases. Their teacher, Dr Pari Collis, says that while citizen science projects hit the bulls-eye in terms of engaging students in the subject, the benefits go beyond meeting the demands of the curriculum.
“Projects such as these make science relevant to students and it’s so important for them to take an interest in their surroundings,” she says, adding that it is very empowering. “Although you are helping them with the ideas, it does become their project in the end.”
But how useful are student observations to professional researchers? According to Opal project manager Roger Fradera, there will always be a trade-off between the research value and the educational value of the project. The challenge of balancing the two can be overcome by the design of the surveys which should avoid getting pupils to observe anything too obscure or specialised.
The evidence gathered by students may also help inform not only scientists, but also policy makers exploring how to tackle Britain’s changing climate. Opal director David Slawson hopes that by getting students excited about science, the projects will inspire more people to choose a career in an industry which faces a worrying shortage of talent in the future.
“School children are vital to citizen science,” says Fradera. “In terms of finding people who have a genuine enthusiasm, and love of nature, you can’t really do better than going to a school where there are 30 kids screaming with excitement at what they are going to do.”
This article was published on The Guardian on July 29 2014 and was written by Matthew Jenkin.
About Matthew Jenkin
Matthew Jenkin is editor of Guardian Careers and a freelance contributor