Turning secondary school children into research scientists

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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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