Since the launch of the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) in March 2016, students and teachers who work with us have access to cutting-edge research projects so that, together, they can experience the excitement and challenge of research science in a real-world context. Students and teachers collaborate with active researchers based in universities and industry, as IRIS supports schools in building research networks and provides access to data and experimental equipment. This is a social constructivist approach to learning, where students are supported by their peers, teachers and other collaborators to develop their understanding of science, and to further science itself.
We suggest that to further develop, expand and enhance STEM education, young people must have the opportunity to engage with, and make a fundamental contribution to, authentic STEM research whilst still at school, and to have that contribution to knowledge recognised and celebrated by the scientific community. Our experience of working with schools shows that young people have improved academic and social outcomes, and teachers have an increased sense of job satisfaction through greater connectivity with current research. This paper sets out the vision IRIS has for STEM education, and the impact this has had on the attainment, progress and wider lives of the young people who participate in research projects. This is presented in the form of three case studies of women working with IRIS including Ellie Fox and Dr Lizzie Rushton, and begins with IRIS’ Director, Professor Becky Parker.
Sharing IRIS’ vision for STEM education
Professor Becky Parker
IRIS believes that STEM education should offer opportunities for students to work on genuine problems facing our communities, so that young people are part of tackling the challenges of their future. Our approach resonates with the concept of ‘authentic learning’, as students and teachers are contributing to knowledge by focusing on what is not already known, as part of a disciplined inquiry that has value beyond the classroom (Newmann et al., 1996) ; (Lombardi, 2007).
The Genome Decoders project is an exemplar of our approach to STEM education. Over 1,000 students (aged 13-18), working with scientists based at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge, are working to annotate the human whipworm genome. Students have been trained to use specialist software in their schools and are working in a collaborative way with their peers, supported by their teachers. This will result in the first annotation of the human whipworm genome and the first annotation of any genome by school students. Their contribution as part of the science community will help address the neglected tropical disease caused by the human whipworm that affects approximately 500 million people globally, mainly children in the tropics. Teachers have had a vital role in encouraging and supporting their students, and the role of the teacher has developed so that they are the students’ collaborators, facilitators and/or advisers. Teachers have viewed this positively, and have valued the opportunity to extend their own subject knowledge and research skills alongside their students. For many teachers, participating in research projects has reconnected them with research, as Nick Harris, a biology teacher from Tapton School says:
‘After leaving research to become a teacher, I used to hanker after those moments of discovery at the cutting edge. Working with IRIS has allowed me to rediscover those moments alongside the students I teach. After a few years out of research you could feel de-skilled and missing out on the latest developments in research, but as part of our student research project, we discuss our findings with scientists in the field. This allows me to keep abreast of current thinking which I believe makes me a better teacher.’
In time, the genome research will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, with school students as authors alongside their scientist collaborators. IRIS students have already authored journal articles based upon their physics research undertaken whilst at school (Hatfield, 2010) ; (Whyntie and Harrison, 2015). These experiences of publication in journals and presenting at conferences have provided students with the opportunity to develop a range of research, communication and interpersonal skills. These opportunities have been recognised as important developmental experiences for undergraduate students (Walkington et al., 2017), and IRIS believes that this can and should be extended to school students. Ellie Fox is a student whose participation in early research work in schools has had a positive role in shaping her development as a scientist.
Living IRIS’ vision for STEM education
Ellie attended Tapton School between 2008 and 2015 and participated in a Wellcome Trust funded Authentic Biology programme, in which sixth form students linked with university departments work on a variety of bioscience projects. The Authentic Biology project she participated in used Zebrafish embryos to investigate genes with novel functions in the cardiovascular system, and was key in shaping her aspirations to study STEM at university. Ellie first went to a project meeting at the beginning of Year 12 (2013) when she saw a poster advertising the research project in school and regularly contributed to the project, attending weekly meetings and participating in experiments. Ellie was part of the team that presented their research at the Wellcome Trust Authentic Biology symposium.
Whilst contributing to the Authentic Biology project, Ellie developed skills in analysis, critical and independent thinking, and research design. Ellie felt that these skills were otherwise difficult to develop as part of her A-level studies, as in A-level laboratory work ‘there is usually an answer on the mark scheme that your teacher can explain to you’. It was these experiences of research in school that led Ellie to change her degree subject choice to Cellular and Molecular Medicine, and having completed the second year of her undergraduate degree, she is currently on a year-long research placement with a biochemistry group in the Freie Universitaet, Berlin.
‘I would wholeheartedly recommend this experience to other students. I found that through participating in the zebrafish project I was not only able to develop skills such as analysis, evaluation and communication in a real-world situation, but I was able to draw on these skills in other contexts. I only realised how fundamental these experiences were in enabling me to make the successful transition to university when I began my degree.’
Participating in research projects is challenging. The subject matter and skills required are demanding and require students to persevere, but if students do persist, Ellie believes that they will find the experience exciting and rewarding.
Evaluating IRIS’ vision for STEM education
Dr Lizzie Rushton
Using attainment data from one of the participating schools, IRIS has been able to explore the impact of participation in the Authentic Biology programme (AB) on four cohorts of A2 Biology students from 2013-14 to 2016-2017. During the four years of this intervention, 53 A-level Biology students participated and 201 did not and this latter group provided a ‘control group’. Student participation was completely voluntary and was open to any student as there were no academic pre-requisites. Of the 53 participants, 27 were predicted A/A* in A-level Biology, the remaining 26 were predicted B or C grades. The L3VA score was calculated for each student in both the AB group and the ‘control group’ for each year and a mean value calculated.
The L3VA scores stand for ‘Level Three Value Added’ and this is a measure of progress made between the end of KS4 and KS5 as it compares the predicted progress at the end of KS4 with actual progress made at the end of KS5. A value of 1.0 indicates the student has made progress equivalent to a whole grade at A2 level. The use of this measure enables the evaluation of progress, rather than simply the attainment of students (Nunes et al., 2017).
The AB cohorts 2013-2017 achieved an average L3VA of 0.62, compared to the average L3VA of 0.23 achieved by the whole A2 Biology cohort. The average L3VA for A2 Biology students who did not participate in AB was 0.12. This shows that AB students make almost three times the progress of the whole A-level Biology cohort and six times the progress of students who did not participate in AB. As these are students from the same school, taught by the same teachers, it is justifiable to attribute this increase in progress to the AB project. Closer examination of the L3VA measure by each exam grade allows us to explore which students made the most progress. The L3VA for students who achieved A/A* grades and C grades in A-level Biology were calculated for groups of students who did participate in Authentic Biology and those students who did not participate.
The average L3VA scores of 0.80 achieved by A/A* grade students from the AB group are broadly similar to the L3VA scores of 0.84 achieved by A/A* students who did not participate in the AB programme. The most substantial difference in L3VA between those who did and did not participate in AB is seen in students who achieved Grade C in A2 Biology.
AB students who achieved a grade C made nearly 10 times the progress of students who did not participate in the programme, with AB students’ average L3VA score 0.59 compared to 0.06 for those who did not participate. Although the number of students who participated in AB and achieved a C grade in this example is small, this measure does suggest that this type of learning increases levels of progress. It is also important to note that this rate of progress within this attainment level could mean the difference between being awarded a place at University and not, enabling more students to access pathways into STEM careers.
Working with students in IRIS schools from across the UK suggest that a model where students can engage in authentic research projects raises their aspirations and attainment, and develops skills that students recognise as valuable both during and beyond their secondary education. This approach also enables teachers to integrate and include STEM research within their practice. In the future, IRIS aims to develop this approach beyond STEM so that teachers actively contribute to research in their chosen area. After all, a music teacher is a professional who combines performance with expert teaching. IRIS provides the opportunities for science teachers and their students to contribute to cutting-edge STEM research as valued members of the science community.