Dr Becky Parker, Institute of Research in Schools
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Considerable sums are being ploughed into initiatives to encourage more people into STEM subjects - that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One such initiative is by getting pupils to collect, anaylse and publish data in peer reviewed journals. Graihagh Jackson spoke to Becky Parker about the Institute for Research in Schools but first, she got the perspective of sixteen year old Amy O'Toole, to hear what she thought about science education...
Amy - Well to me, science was just a boring subject and I never thought it would play a major role in my life. To be honest, I didn’t see the point in having it as a subject, but I think that was mostly down to the fact that I was never taught it as a scheduled lesson until I was in the upper years of primary school.
Graihagh - We’ll be hearing more from Amy later in the programme, but first, Becky Parker, director of the Institute for Research in Schools and also a secondary school physics teacher is with us. Is this a common perception amongst youngsters?
Becky - Well, I think it may even be more so. The new GCSE's and A Level's being started right now actually don’t have even practical work as part of their assessed grade. Now, we hope that teachers do practical work, but much of syllabuses are very content-heavy and it frightens me to think that what we try and teach them, all the answers are known. There's no sort of scope for the students to contribute, you know, they turn the page and see the results of the experiment they’ve just done. The sort of aspect of how science works is a bit contrived. I think young people have a love of science, it’s just it gets a bit deadened. I think teachers are doing their best. I think we just need to support teachers to let them do real science when they're actually learning science rather than just a set body.
Graihagh - Indeed. I remember very clearly my science lessons. Most of the experiments were actually done by teachers at the front of the class. There wasn’t anything hands on and there certainly wasn’t anything where we were actually conducting our own scientific investigations of stuff that isn't known about so much. Do you think that’s the main reason why perhaps youngsters might think it’s a little bit boring or might not be going into the discipline?
Becky - Yeah. I think this sort of like doesn’t mean enough to them and it doesn’t nurture the potential they have. We just think there's so much content they need to know, but perhaps in the internet age today, perhaps they don’t need to know all that content. I mean obviously, they’ve got to get exams but we’ve got to be able to sort of inspire them with the wonders of science rather than thinking they’ve got to get through a certain quantity of material and not do anything investigative and inspirational, experimental themselves.
Graihagh - Because ultimately, this isn't really what science is about. You don’t sit around and read a text book the whole time. You're actually out there and investigating things. Science as education has been changing recently and I've noticed there's this increasing pattern where children are actually beginning to do science themselves that’s previously been unknown before.
Becky - Yeah. I think there's a number of schemes and what we’re trying to do at the Institute for Research in Schools which has just established – thanks to a fantastic philanthropist funding us to start up. We’re trying to make schools able to have the support from us to actually take part. We’ve got a number of national projects already going, we’ve got one big project called CERN@school where we have detector chips from the Large Hadron Collider in 50 schools across the country, and we’ve put a detector in space. The students design this and they're getting new data off which is useful for NASA. Students can do amazing things and we’ve got to give them the ability to take part in this stuff.
Graihagh - What strikes me here is that not only are these students becoming scientists in their own right, but also, this is a great potential for professors to help outsource some of this research to younger people as well. It’s like a two-fold benefit so to speak.
Becky - Well, it is exactly and I think if universities start to realise there's this whole group of young people who have the ability to contribute – I mean, it’s a bit like Citizen science but a bit more beyond that because you want the students to actually do some of those real investigations of, “what computer programmes do I need, what sort of analysis do I need?” You want them to use the skills of a scientist to contribute to a major research project. They don’t have to start doing that at the end of their university degree. Many more schools can do thi and that’s what we want to do, to make it a more standard thing that teachers have that inspiration and re-invigoration in their subject. Students see what real science is like and universities have some more meaningful interaction with their partner schools.
Graihagh - Indeed. But one thing that does strike me is, how can you trust this data? How trustworthy is it? Is it following the correct standards that you would expect of a peer reviewed publication?
Becky - Yes! We have to go through exact… that’s why we publish my student’s work in peer reviewed journals. We have say, data from the satellite. I've got an expert in astronaut dosimetry flying over from NASA next week to talk to my students about their data. This is proper stuff. It’s not anything Mickey Mouse. It’s the real thing and that’s what we should give our students an experience of. They don’t have to just be given sort of cleaned up perfect things. They should see the real world of science.
Graihagh - What sort of reaction have you had from your students very briefly?
Becky - Well, they love it! I mean, it’s the chance for them to actually feel as though they're making a contribution. I think that’s one of the real downsides of science education is, they don’t feel they can ever contribute. Yet, they’ve got amazing ideas and they're so skilled in so many areas. And so, they can actually see how they might see themselves in the future as a contributing scientist and so many of them carry on and be real, proper scientists of the future.