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16/09/2014

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Engaging the next generation of scientists

Wayne A Mitchell, Debonair Sherman, Andrea Choppy and Rachel L Gomes support science at the primary stage

The Next Generation Project (NGP) grew out of a Black History Month science workshop designed for school children aged between eight and eleven by Wayne Mitchell. Wayne helped the pupils explore the world of DNA. The two-day workshop was such a success that he conceived the NGP, delivered by a team of postdoctoral scientists, supported by Imperial College London. The content of the workshops complement the UK National Curriculum.

The project in action

The first year of the NGP consisted of 24 workshops covering 12 science topics such as water filtration, liquid nitrogen, lemon powerstation and heat in space. Racing a maggot and a woodlouse provided a simple but effective model for guiding the pupils through building a hypothesis to testing and evaluating the outcome. Engaging the pupils lead them to progress naturally to developing hypotheses for racing other insects and how their body function and movement may affect the outcome. This easily introduced the concept of fair testing and changing of variables.

Combined with the hands-on experiments, the scientists have given large-scale demonstrations. These have included submersing materials such as flowers, elastic bands and eggs in liquid nitrogen to portray the concept of matter changing states. A visit by a Giant African Land Snail provided an excellent introduction to movement and growth. On the other hand, a slinky was an easily sourced resource to illustrate the concept of sound travelling through air.

The workshops try to provide an inclusive environment where pupils are encouraged to participate in activities: whole-class brainstorming, small-group work and writing questions on Post-It Notes. These activities form the basis for developing communication skills and investigative prowess, irrespective of personality or ability. Often, class discussion of the differing results can generate constructive debates amongst the pupils.

Each workshop culminates in small-group presentations, each presenting a different topic to their classmates who act as the informed audience. The first year of the NGP has seen around 90 presentations given by pupils, ranging from songs, role-plays, posters and oral presentations.

Wide benefits

The NGP is beneficial for all involved. Pupils can learn in a more creative and innovative way that stimulates an enquiring and investigative mindset. Furthermore, it challenges the stereotypical image of an eccentric male scientist through the provision of realistic role models.

Working with experts in their chosen scientific fields will empower and enable pupils to evaluate information scientifically. Through this, they can develop their ability to judge the value of their own and others’ ideas, and have confidence in their judgements.

Whilst learning that science is fun and accessible, pupils also utilise transferable skills such as communication, team-working and negotiation.

For teachers, the progressive relationship developed during the preparation and briefing sessions with the scientists provides them with the confidence to demonstrate scientific concepts in a way that is creative, engaging and enjoyable for all. This can then act as inspiration if teachers wish to develop their own experiments and demonstrations for future science topics. 

In turn, the scientist gains valuable experience in communicating to a range of audiences. Involvement in a workshop not only builds transferable skills but also keeps alight the passion that most scientists have for their vocation.

As NGP enters its second year, it continues to offer a genuine opportunity to foster closer working partnerships between scientists and teachers. Delivering science in an engaging and informative way encourages a better and wider understanding of science for our children. In time, we hope that they will become the next generation scientists to spark an interest in science in other children.

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Dr Wayne A Mitchell
Dr Wayne A Mitchell is at the Department of Immunology, Imperial College London
Debonair Sherman
Debonair Sherman and Head Teacher Andrea Choppy are at Salisbury Primary School, Manor Park, East London
Dr Rachel L Gomes
Dr Rachel L Gomes is at the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London
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