Science and engineering PhD students are giving secondary school pupils the benefit of their experience. Ben Osborne and Lucy Hodges report
For Kirsty Jamieson, a PhD student at the University of Paisley, it was fun to go back to school as part of a scheme to promote science and engineering to secondary school pupils. She felt she was doing something useful and found the teaching a challenge.
Aged 36, she is one of about 500 doctoral students who are taking part in the Pupil Researcher Initiative set up to boost the teaching and learning of science for 14 to 16-year-olds.
"If you are going to get more people into science, you are going to have to start in secondary schools," she says, echoing concern about the numbers of young people opting for science A level and for degrees in science.
Established in September 1994 to run for three years, the initiative enables research scientists to hone their communication skills and give something back to a system which has benefited them. The idea is that schoolchildren will listen to PhD students because they are young, enthusiastic and doing different things with them from their teachers. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, it is managed by the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University.
There are four strands to it - teacher bursaries to enable teachers to spend time in research laboratories, school science fairs, and a new set of curriculum materials for GCSE, as well as the researchers in residence scheme which puts academics into schools. The last strand is an attempt to mobilise the research community - so far a great untapped resource - to help with the science education of young people, according to Ken Mannion, one of the centre's deputy directors.
All researchers in residence are studying for PhDs and all have to attend a briefing day where they discuss what to expect when they visit their school. Terry Hudson, another of the centre's deputy directors, explains: "We insist they go on training before going to schools." Among the doctoral students' tasks are to give talks to pupils, assist in the classroom, give demonstrations, help with practical work, and attend residential weeks with the pupils.
None are left in charge of a class. Ms Jamieson, a research chemist, undertook team-teaching with an experienced teacher, and is planning to go into teaching when she gets her PhD later this year.
She spent four days over a three-week period at Tain Royal Academy school in northern Scotland. She says: "I enjoyed the contact with the pupils, the principal teacher allowed me to team-teach and I gave various talks to different years. The students threw themselves into it heart and soul. They put a lot of effort in and really seemed to enjoy it."
Most of the students have developed continuing links with the schools. Ms Jamieson says: "When I was there I was helping the sixth year with their study projects. When I got back I looked out for samples and papers and I sent some research up to them. They're going to write back to me and let me know how they are getting on."
For Spencer Hudson, 25, a PhD student at the University of Teesside, spending time in schools is an opportunity to stretch himself, help others and see if he can get some help for his research in return. "You do it for self-development and seeing what is available," he says. "You do it to push yourself, to gain new experiences and see if you can help."
Saul Cozens, , who is doing a PhD in electronic engineering at Sheffield University, was on the pilot scheme for researchers in residence. He did not have as happy a time as Ms Jamieson, because the teachers at his school were not prepared for his visit, but since then he has attended a science weekend in Cumbria with 13 pupils from a Sheffield school, which he enjoyed and where he served as a role model.
"The whole point was to get away from the idea that we are incredibly intellectual boffins and show that we're the same as them," said Mr Cozens. "They saw I was a normal person."
The hope is that the children's attitudes will be changed, and that they will feel able to achieve what Mr Cozens is achieving.
The researchers in residence scheme has been fine tuned since the pilot to ensure that schools are committed and ready to receive the PhD students.
All the students are being paid a small sum, but say they are not doing it for the money.
Will it be possible to judge the success of the scheme? The Centre for Science Education is having it evaluated. Mr Cozens reports having had success on his science weekend. A couple of the girls attending changed their attitudes, he said. They had originally decided on vocational courses. After the weekend they were contemplating science A levels. That is what researchers in residence is all about.