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Student-led research: the future of education? Dr. Nick Harris

In Science we have been undertaking school-based, student-led research in the affectionately called ‘Fish Project’.  Here I will discuss the background to this project and how we think it has changed the way we teach and how the students learn. I will also introduce how we are extending this project out into other subject areas as part of our collaborations with the Institute for Research in Schools, IRIS, a new charitable organization that is at the forefront of this type of teaching approach.

The ‘Fish project’ is a scientific research group that mirrors a University research group but is run by our Post 16 science students - investigating the role of genes in cardiovascular disease. We use molecular staining techniques to identify how these genes are involved in the development of cardiovasculature of the zebrafish. We have successfully identified a gene and are building a hypothesis to demonstrate, for the first time, its role in the development of blood vessels. We aim to publish our findings in a peer reviewed journal. Generously funded by the Wellcome Trust, the project is a collaboration with the University of Sheffield.

The benefits of such a project are far reaching, the students involved having opportunities to exercise all of their five Rs as well as regular interactions with academics and PhD students from the University. A big aspect of the research project is communicating their findings and this involves presentation of results at various conferences throughout the year at the University of Sheffield Medical School research day, the annual Wellcome Trust Research Symposium and this year we have been invited to present at the Royal Society.  What I always find remarkable is how the students are more than capable of understanding and questioning complex problems, often beyond the demands of an undergraduate course.

This has also been clearly demonstrated in a new Physics project that James O’Neill has started in collaboration with IRIS, where students are analysing data gathered on the International Space Station that recorded astronaut exposure to radiation. Students have identified anomalies in the data and a dialogue between them and the NASA scientists has started. Soon students will be engaged in looking for new planets and supernovae in their analysis of data from the GAIA space probe.

Recently we have started a regular Journal club and Seminar discussions about current science thinking. Having authentic science research projects and regular scientific discussions is fostering a love for learning. This is having a noticeable increase in engagement in lessons, supporting more inquisitive questioning which enriches their understanding of the subjects as a whole.

There are many more projects for students to get involved in and many of them are developed and funded through IRIS. Next year Tapton is going to become the Northern Hub for IRIS, where we will offer training and advice to a network of schools on how to initiate similar research projects; this means that we can become a test bed for new projects as they become funded. I think this is an excellent opportunity for us to lead school-based research into new subject areas. My closing comments are therefore an invitation for you to get involved, come and speak to either James or me to find out more or even discuss ideas about research that you may be able to facilitate.