Fire up the little Einsteins

October 20, 2006

To spark schoolchildren's interest in science, researchers are letting them contribute to their projects, Olga Wojtas discovers

Enabling school students to chat to a researcher in the Antarctic, use webcams to count cars or scan the stars through telescopes in Hawaii and Australia could prove crucial to the survival of university science departments. There is widespread disquiet over the drop in the number of pupils applying to study science, but technology developed to meet the computational needs of big science is being successfully used to bring the "wow" factor to school science.

Through the Grid, pupils in pilot projects supported by the Joint Information Systems Committee and research councils not only see what scientists do, but also feed into their research. Dawn Woodgate, research fellow in psychology at Bath University, says: "The idea is that children collect data of their own and become active scientists in their own right.

It is too late to tackle the problem at higher-education level because kids are turned off science way before then."

Woodgate and Danae Stanton Fraser, a reader in psychology, have reviewed e-Science and education for Jisc, logging case studies of projects such as the Jisc-funded School E-Science Network for the Study of Environmental Science collaboration between Bath, Nottingham and Sussex universities. For the project, pupils first hypothesised about pollution levels in their area by creating maps and monitoring traffic through webcams. They then went out with pollution-monitoring sensors and gathered data they could share between schools and discuss online with a researcher.

Joseph Hutcheon, secretary of Jisc's committee for the support of research, says: "Doing science in the classroom can be very dull and boring and not related to the real world."

The pupils could understand that scientists needed to investigate pollution, and they were excited that their data were helping to further scientific knowledge. Josh Underwood, a research fellow in informatics at Sussex, says: "We are definitely very enthusiastic and convinced that there is a role for e-Science to make school science more engaging."

Underwood worked on a similar project that was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It involved pupils collecting pollution data on the Sussex campus that were used to generate a map-style representation that showed how pollution levels varied across the university. "In certain types of e-Science, it is useful to have a large number of data gatherers," he says, citing a project to monitor UK insect numbers that involved hundreds of volunteers recording the number of bugs squashed on their car number plates. "If this (project) were on a national scale, it could be a useful facility for research scientists as well as learners and teachers," he adds.

Jisc has no remit to fund a national schools project, but it can get people talking to one another and demonstrate how school e-Science benefits pupils and researchers. Jisc and the EPSRC funded a Southampton University initiative that unites pupils and researchers in the hunt for a new anti-malaria drug. The pupils use research software to design chemical compounds they can refine against the malaria target - their results are displayed with the look and feel of a computer game.

Hutcheon says interest in school science fell as it became less hands-on for health and safety reasons. But linking pupils into university facilities allows them access, for example, to high-quality computer simulations. "They are not going to blow themselves up or inhale intoxicating chemicals," he says.

Another Jisc project, based at Liverpool John Moores University, used the Grid to allow pupils live access to telescopes in the southern hemisphere.

Hutcheon stresses that there were systems in place to prevent pupils doing anything dangerous or damaging equipment. "If they try to swivel a radio telescope 360 degrees, it says they cannot do that. It is like a car with dual controls. There is always somebody who can intervene if you are veering off the road."

Underwood says that for a project looking at temperature change and the thickness of ice on an Antarctic lake, pupils had visit the university for an online chat with a scientist. Most school networks are not very sophisticated, but Jisc is working to make Grid technology more generally usable. "It will take a couple more years," Hutcheon says. "But schools can then tap into that technology, and it will help bring the community up to speed on what was previously the purview of a few big scientists."

Researchers are only too aware that science needs to keep enticing young people to take up careers in science. Woodgate says those studying science at university are the success stories because entrants generally need good GCSE and A-level passes. She says that e-Science researchers want to get more success stories, but they also want to interest even those pupils who will never go on to study science. "They need to be equipped to be able to understand scientific controversies, to take part in discussion and debates about scientific issues and the legal, moral, ethical and economic questions they raise if they are not to be excluded from this important part of modern life."

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