What if we could improve science by sending scientists back to school?

photo taken from getBRAINY website

According to recent reports young people aren’t attracted to science.  Added to which, there are not enough women in science, nor men, depending on whom you ask.  And those we do have are often criticised for not being very good at communicating their ideas to non-scientists, or for not being inspirational enough for our young people.

But what can we do about it?  It often falls to teachers to make science understandable, interesting and attractive to their students; but isn’t it time that scientists did their bit?  Well, a team of neuroscientists, led by Gareth Hathway and Ian Devonshire, at Nottingham University has done just that by sending a group of undergraduate students back to school and they were at the BNA2013 festival to explain their findings.

The group set up a series of outreach workshops in the Nottingham area, designed not only to help inspire primary school children living in disadvantaged areas, but also to help the undergrads improve their communication techniques.  It goes without saying that the scientists also wanted to collect some quantifiable evidence along the way.

Speaking to 3 of the students (all females) who had run the workshops, it’s clear that they managed to achieve all of the above and more.  They told me that they’d had a great time planning their workshops and had great reviews from the kids too: “I liked it times1000,” was a frequent reply.

Although the students all delivered their own workshops, which depended on their field of interest, they co-operated during planning stages to help develop each other’s ideas.  Once in the classroom, they all helped in the smooth running of the workshops by working with the small groups of children completing the tasks, and this of course meant that there was more individual attention available for those children.  Interestingly, they also made an educationally and neuroscientifically relevant finding: children learn more when a wager or risk is involved!

But it doesn’t stop there.  A similar project, getBRAINY, run by Jane Haley, is also underway at Edinburgh University involving neuroscience workshops, this time aimed at a wider variety of ages.  The group has workshops ranging from topics exploring how neurons send their signals and make connections, to making a love potion based on that from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Feedback from schools has been very positive and the people running the workshops clearly enjoy it too.  When I talked to one of the organisers for the project in Edinburgh, she acknowledged that although it was a great morning activity for students, it is often difficult to find a way of incorporating the learning outcomes into the curriculum and building on what has been learnt once the workshop is over.  But both groups are hopeful that by recruiting more volunteers they can increase the variety of resources available.

The Royal Society recently published Brain Waves Module 2: Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning, and one of their 4 recommendations is that stronger links need to be developed between educators and researchers over the long term. This would allow time to collect reliable data on work carried out and for these data to be used to inform policy makers using scientifically sound evidence, rather than marketing from publishers or resource manafacturers.

These are exactly the kinds of projects capable of building these educator-researcher links, and no doubt there are other similar projects being developed elsewhere.  But they are of no use unless people are aware of them and willing to invest time and money in developing both the workshops and the relationships between universities and schools.

For more details about the work of the individual groups, please check their websites (or twitter).  And make sure you pass these details on, because we can only improve science by sending scientists back to school if it happens over the long term.