Issues Magazine

Lighting the SPARQ: Engaging School Students in Authentic Scientific Research

By Peter Darben

A university–government “research immersion” program is addressing the problem of student disengagement with science.

Considerable comment has been made in recent years about student disengagement from science, whether it be in school or as a career choice. Despite the continued popularity of science-related documentaries and the explosion of science-themed drama in popular culture, young people are choosing not to engage in science education. Students are telling that although they are interested in science-related topics, a scientific career is not a serious option for them. The drop in student participation in post-compulsory and tertiary science education has policy-makers alarmed and calling for reforms to the curriculum and education system to try to redress this drift away.

Much attention has been placed on the way science is taught in our classrooms. One reality that educators must face is that modern students no longer recognise the classroom as their sole source of scientific information. The internet and cable and satellite television channels dedicated to science and technology provide today’s students with a dizzying array of alternatives to the traditional teacher-based delivery of scientific information. Even television drama programs are presenting scientific careers as interesting and exciting.

Of course, a canny teacher knows to incorporate these activities into their everyday teaching to engage their students. With the lack of quality control apparent on the internet and the unrealistic portrayals in television drama, some degree of teacher vetting of this information is vital. Successful science educators have moved away from the traditional model of textbook-based, teacher-centred modes of delivery, which concentrated on the transmission of a set body of facts. They have embraced collaborative and enquiry-focused learning, which puts the emphasis for learning firmly onto the students. They use a variety of different sources that mirror and complement the way that students themselves actively seek out and share information. The effective science teacher also realises that no matter how up-to-date their body of knowledge is, students respond well to getting their information “from the horse’s mouth”, so networks and partnerships with professionals in the research community are becoming increasingly popular means of broadening the resource base.

The budgetary, timetabling and resourcing realities of day-to-day classroom teaching have meant that not every lesson in science can be an experimental or exploratory one. This situation has not been helped by the perception among teachers that they are restricted in the sorts of activities they can conduct due to occupational health and safety concerns, or by an increasing tendency for educational authorities to measure success in the classroom by testing regimes that only assess a narrow range of skills focusing on the retention and presentation of facts.

However, students consistently tell us that although they find science interesting, they are deterred from pursuing science studies because they see it as “mainly based on remembering a lot of facts”. To ensure that our students are properly engaged in science, we need to ensure that they are given opportunities to explore the field using a variety of different methods and via a diverse range of sources.

The benefits of using hands-on and enquiry-based methods in science teaching are well-established, and most science teachers endeavour to ensure that a reasonable proportion of their teaching time is devoted to such activities. However, much of the truly exciting development in modern science cannot for practical reasons be transferred directly to the classroom (see Box, p.26).

With these considerations in mind, in 2007 Professor Ian Frazer approached the Hon. Rod Welford, then Queensland’s Minister for Education, Training and the Arts, with a proposal to establish an educational facility for school students and teachers in the University of Queensland’s Diamantina Institute. The main aim of this facility would be to give Queensland students and teachers an authentic research experience while putting them in contact with the world-leading biomedical scientists working at the Diamantina Institute. In 2009, Students Performing Advanced Research Queensland (SPARQ-ed) was established with the appointment of a coordinator and the creation of a dedicated teaching laboratory at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.

The idea for an authentic scientific experience was realised in the development of SPARQ-ed’s flagship service, the research immersion programs. In these programs, senior students from throughout the state work on a 5-day intensive experimental project linked to one of the Institute’s research groups. As well as working with world-ranked biomedical scientists, the students get the opportunity to contribute to the work that these scientists do, all the while putting the theory that they learn at school to a practical use.

In semester 1 of 2009, 18 students and five teachers from schools in the Greater Brisbane region took part in the first three trial research immersion projects, covering areas such as the molecular basis of metabolic disorders, the biology of the human papillomavirus and the development of cancers from abnormalities in the cell cycle.

Each of the research immersion programs is designed by the coordinator in conjunction with the research leader. The coordinator, an experienced, registered science teacher with a research background, sits down with the researcher and devises a project that can be completed by the students during the 5-day program. The program is selected to enable students to get a meaningful result by the end of the week, assuming all goes according to plan.

Procedures are developed throughout the week, with early exercises explained step-by-step. As students gain experience and confidence, the procedures are provided in less detail with an expectation that students will “fill in the blanks”. This development of procedures is important: at the beginning of the week, students are unsure and hesitant about the techniques; however, as they become more confident they are encouraged to explore the techniques in greater depth.

All projects are designed to have a number of checkpoints – stages in the project where the students will get some measure of success. In addition, the participants are told to expect changes to be made to the experimental procedures during the week. Real-life scientists often make modifications to their laboratory protocols to suit emerging situations, so students are encouraged to make these changes and document them in their laboratory manuals.

Supervision of the practical classes is undertaken by postgraduate students under guidance from the coordinator. The tutors provide targeted instruction, working with groups of two to four students at a time. Contact with tutors has proved to be a highlight of the programs because the tutors not only give the participants detailed instruction in technique and guidance in modifying the procedures as situations arise, but also provide them with information about their own personal journeys into a scientific research career.

The research immersion programs are intended to provide participants with as authentic an experience as is possible in 5 days. As a result, in addition to the experimental program, SPARQ-ed provides a number of other activities. Participants are encouraged to attend the research seminars that the Diamantina Institute offers. While these are often pitched at a level slightly higher than the average senior science student, they do provide the participants with an indication of the process of scientific research and some of the more recent developments in science yet to reach the mainstream media.

These seminars also serve as a model for the participants when they present the results of their work during the week at the SPARQ-ed Closing Symposium to staff and students at the Institute. Effective science communication is a vital skill for all researchers, and these skills are certainly developed when presenting results to experts in the field. Despite most participants not having encountered these concepts or techniques before the beginning of the program, the standard of presentations to date has been very high.

Participants also undertake a library tutorial in the joint PA/UQ Medical Library. Librarians not only show students how to use the UQ libraries and online catalogues, but also introduce them to scientific journals and online abstracting services such as PubMed. Many participants take this knowledge back to school with them and use it to enhance their research for projects in science and other subjects.

There is no doubt that the content of the work done in the programs aligns to curriculum requirements. The programs cover topics that are integral to sections of the biology syllabus (e.g. cell biology, biochemistry, DNA structure and replication, transcription and translation, protein structure, enzyme kinetics), and these topics are presented in a way that puts the knowledge into context. SPARQ-ed is currently negotiating with the Queensland Studies Authority to investigate ways in which student participation in the programs can go towards their final results in biology or chemistry, either in the form of a an alternative assessment item, a stimulus for an assessment item, or as a way of gaining credit towards their Queensland Certificate of Education.

While only a limited number of student and teacher participants have taken part in the trial programs, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. A week is a long period of time to take out of the senior program for students; however, all of the student participants have said that the week has been time well spent. The general student attitude during the course of the week has been one of enthusiasm and excitement, with some requesting more time in the laboratory. In survey feedback, most students stated that they would seriously consider a career in scientific research once they had experienced the research immersion program.

The major hurdle to be overcome is reticence among students and school communities, particularly around giving up a week of school study for the experience of the program. There is a lot of interest in holiday programs; while some have been planned, these are mainly intended as professional development opportunities for teachers. Even so, scope for provision of holiday programs is limited – a maximum of four or five programs could be offered per year, while programs offered during term time could number up to 12 in addition to the holiday programs.

The solution may lie in changing the culture and attitudes of school communities. After all, regular in-term enrichment activities such as camps are well established for sports and artistic endeavours such as music – why should science students give up their holiday time for enrichment programs?

The solution to the continuing “brain drain” from science won’t come from one source, but from the realisation that we need to match our teaching of science to the way that modern students choose to seek out information. We need to give young people an authentic hands-on scientific experience that has a definite connection to benefits in the real world. We need to put them in touch with people who are flourishing in scientific careers and can act as role models, and we need to ensure that those teaching science are equipped with the latest possible information to engage their students. The SPARQ-ed facility is one way that students and teachers can access these experiences with minimal cost to their communities.

Enquiries about the program can be made to