Research intelligence - Show and tell: a new school of thought on outreach

Discussing work with schoolchildren helps pupils, researchers and their disciplines, writes Paul Jump

July 29, 2010

With pressure growing on researchers around the world to get more involved in communicating their work and maximising its impact, placements in schools could soon become as commonplace an aspect of academic careers as speaking at specialist conferences.

In the US, the initiation of school placements is left largely to individual academics and institutions - although that may change with the launch of President Barack Obama's Educate to Innovate campaign, which aims to boost young people's interest and attainment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Other parts of the world already have coordinated school-placement programmes, such as those run by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, New Zealand's LENScience and Set-Routes, a pan-European network of women scientists.

The UK's version, Researchers in Residence, is funded by the research councils and the Wellcome Trust.

It focuses on placing doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in secondary schools. The reason for this, said Beth Chesney-Evans, head of Researchers in Residence at AEA Technology, which currently runs the programme, is that young researchers have a better chance than older ones of convincing pupils that research is cool - "to them, anyone over 25 is ancient".

The researchers receive training in classroom techniques and ethics as well as advice on devising lessons. A hotline also offers researchers and schools support during the placement.

"We aren't prescriptive about what the placement should be," Ms Chesney-Evans said. "But the researchers are not there to teach the curriculum: they are there to add value to it and to engage the kids' enthusiasm."

She admitted that science placements were in more demand from schools, but said teachers were often very happy to accept a humanities placement as well.

Rock out

Clare Woulds, a lecturer in the department of geography at the University of Leeds, was enthusiastic about the two placements she has done at her old school, a large, diverse comprehensive in Essex.

During her first placement, when she was a PhD student, she used videos and her rock collection to teach basic geology to younger pupils, while "stretching" A-level biology students with discussions about her specific research.

A second placement, when she was a postdoctoral student, revolved around a research cruise she was about to do. She followed up with a slide show and extracts from the diary she kept during the cruise.

She said the students were always extremely receptive - except at her lunchtime class on science careers, which was sparsely attended and difficult. "They wanted to project the attitude that they knew it already," she said.

Placements are valuable to pupils, schools and the health of disciplines, but they can also aid career ambitions. Dr Woulds is aware that school-outreach experience could give her an advantage when applying for grants.

Jack Holland, a lecturer in international relations at Leeds, undertook a placement during his PhD to see if he enjoyed teaching, which was to be his fallback position if he failed to gain an academic post.

He went back to his old comprehensive in Norfolk and spoke to younger pupils about terrorism and to older ones about language and foreign policy.

The experience confirmed teaching as Plan B. "The sixth-formers were incredibly bright and were prepared to work in a way that freshers aren't," Dr Holland said.

He added that he would love to do another placement if he had the time. "I'm now a first-year lecturer, and I'm gobsmacked by the workload. (A school placement) is a positive thing to do, and it is also a useful way to demonstrate impact."

Ms Chesney-Evans accepted that not every young researcher has time to do a placement. "We do at least 200 a year. Out of 18,000 UK researchers, that doesn't seem a lot, but people need the support of their supervisor and the timing has to be right."

She said feedback from both researchers and schools had been overwhelmingly positive, with the programme's previous organiser, the University of Edinburgh, having had to "intervene" only twice in the past three years when things went awry.

For her part, Dr Woulds had been "reinvigorated" by her most recent placement.

"When you are in the lab, you focus so much on small problems. To go into schools and have everyone really interested makes you step back and think: 'I really like my job!'"

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