Chemical reaction: How PhD students are taking their subjects into schools

PhD students are being sent into schools to share their knowledge – and love – for their subjects. As Suzanne Lynch finds, the benefits are two-way: the pupils learn and the researchers gain vital experience
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For David Hughes, standing in front of a room full of teenagers isn't usually part of his daily work routine. As an EngD student studying for a doctorate in medical devices at the Institute of Photonics, University of Strathclyde, Hughes is more used to the lab than the classroom. But today, at Boclair Academy, Glasgow, Hughes is deep in conversation with a group of Advanced Higher students about the hows and whys of scientific research.

David Hughes is one of many graduate students and researchers around the UK who are taking part in the Researchers in Residence scheme. Funded by Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust, the programme places PhD and postdoctoral researchers in secondary schools across the UK. Although the scheme is managed by the University of Edinburgh, the programme is delivered by a consortium of regional co-ordinators around the country who oversee placements in their region.

According to Dr Jan Barfoot, project manager of Researchers in Residence, the objective of the programme is to enable greater dialogue and interaction between third-level researchers and secondary-school students. "Researchers in Residence is about raising motivation among pupils by allowing them to connect with a cutting-edge researcher who is knowledgeable and passionate about their subject," she explains. "Through the scheme, pupils have direct access to positive role models. We want to challenge the stereotypical image, in particular, of scientists.

"Even for pupils who aren't going to study science at third level, we believe it is important that, as citizens, they are able to engage with science and contemporary research."

Barbara Stewart, chartered teacher of chemistry at Boclair Academy, and host teacher to the Researchers in Residence scheme at the school, agrees that the scheme offers an excellent way for pupils to engage with science and scientists. "I'm always on the look out for new ways to stimulate enthusiasm for science, and I felt that this scheme would be an excellent way to motivate the students" she says. "Students these days don't tend to think of scientists as real people. This is a great opportunity for them to meet real researchers, and to ask questions of the people who are at the cutting edge of science research."

One of the key aspects of the Researchers in Residence scheme is that researcher and host teacher work closely together to devise a programme of activities that will suit the needs of the particular school. In the run-up to today, Stewart and Hughes have communicated regularly, both in person and via email, to come up with a suitable programme.

"I wanted to ensure that students had access to something completely new, but at the same time to reinforce and complement the curriculum" says Stewart. In the end, they decided that Hughes would speak to sixth-year students today about undertaking scientific research, and would return in the spring and summer terms to help second-years with their practical investigation projects.

But while the benefits for schools are obvious, what do the researchers themselves gain from the programme? For Hughes, there were a number of reasons for him to take part in the programme. "I've always been interested in promoting science in schools," he says. "At a time when the numbers studying science at university is declining, I think it's particularly worthwhile. But I also thought that it would be a good addition to my CV.

"The placement is an opportunity to develop my presentation skills and to broaden my range of teaching experience."

According to Jan Barfoot, the programme offers huge benefits for the researchers involved. As well as giving them the opportunity to engage young people with their research, she believes that the scheme allows researchers to develop important communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills. "All researchers who take part in the scheme attend a training session, which provides excellent communication-skills training that the researcher can use long after their time with Researchers in Residence is over."

Although the majority of researchers who take part in the programme are from the fields of science and engineering, the programme is also open to humanities researchers. Siâ* Prosser, a PhD student in medieval French at the University of Sheffield, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, did her placement earlier this year at her old school, Dover Grammar School for Girls. Siâ* developed an interdisciplinary project involving the French, English and history departments at the school. The central idea for her residency was to build on the curriculum teaching of the Norman conquest by working with students on a "Newspaper for the Middle Ages" project.

Over the course of six visits, Siâ* developed a series of activities to help with the production of the newspaper, including role plays with the "chroniclers" interviewing historical figures; research using the Bayeux Tapestry, and excerpts from contemporary chronicles and the Domesday Book.

The finished product was The Chronicle, a newspaper containing news articles, interviews, commentaries, illustrations, Anglo-Saxon charms and riddles, obituaries and adverts.

Gemma Clarke is another non-scientist who will be taking part in the scheme this year. She is in the second year of a PhD in criminology at Cambridge University, and hopes to complete her placement in a school before commencing an AHRC/ESRC-funded scholarship at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, later in the academic year. What attracted her to the Researchers in Residence scheme?

"At this stage in my PhD, I know I want to continue a career in social science, but I'm not yet sure on which part of Academe I want to focus. I am interested in teaching, education, research, writing and criminological applications of my own topic, so I want to get as much experience of all of them as I can," she explains.

Clarke is delighted to have been accepted on to the scheme, and she completed her training day just last week. "Although I do love my doctorate work, the PhD programmes at British universities can be very narrow, focusing almost exclusively on the research process.

"I want the chance to broaden my horizons, develop my teaching skills, gain a new perspective on education and pedagogy, and, at the same time, enhance my CV," she says. "Researchers in Residence will, I hope, give me the opportunity to do so."

'The kids really got stuck in and asked plenty of questions'

Melanie Thomson, a PhD student in microbiology at the University of York, completed a two-week placement earlier this year at Easingwold School in North Yorkshire.

As an experiment, before introducing Melanie to the class, science teacher Ms Forrester asked the pupils to draw a picture of what they thought a scientist looked like. Predictably, almost all the students drew an image of the stereotyped eccentric professor, and only one drew a woman scientist. When Melanie arrived, without a white coat or a pair of spectacles in sight, the children were immediately smitten.

Armed with an assortment of bright and cuddly bacteria "toys", Melanie set to work on two experiments that she had designed to illustrate the concept of "good" and "bad" bacteria.

"I wanted to capture the students' imagination and choose a real-life subject that they could engage with," she says. "I figured one way that teenagers would be familiar with the concept of 'good' bacteria was through TV advertisements for probiotic yoghurt drinks, so we conducted an experiment to test food manufacturers' claims of bacterial acid resistance in probiotic drinks such as Actimel and Yakult. Our results, which showed that most manufacturers' claims to be overstated to say the least, gave the students food for thought! The experiment was useful in showing students how they can question and make informed decisions about scientific claims."

For her second experiment on "bad" bacteria, Melanie again chose a familiar example; this time the issue of hospital-acquired infections. The experiment tested the efficacy of various hand-washing agents in reducing the count of surface bacteria on the students' hands. The results showed that the alcohol gel favoured by the NHS was the best agent for reducing hand-surface bacterial load, while some of the liquid soaps and bars of soap tested were ineffective and had the same results as washing hands only in water.

So, overall, how did Melanie rate her experience as a researcher-in-residence?

"It was fantastic. I was really surprised at how well the kids responded to the experiments. They really got stuck in and asked plenty of questions."

Having enjoyed and survived her experience, Melanie is now considering teaching as a full-time profession when she finishes her PhD. "While I enjoy academia, unfortunately most jobs in science at university-level are research-focused, with very little room for teaching. My experience at Easingwold School made me realise how much I enjoy interacting with students. I will definitely be considering teaching as an option."

SL

Comments