Thursday, 12 April 2012

Taking part in 'real' science.

A series of tweets this morning started me thinking about involving kids in science experiments.  The conversation started with a tweet about Chemistry in the Olympics on the new RSC site ‘Learn Chemistry’.  

The experiment is similar to ones which I have used in the past, especially when working on CREST awards or experience weeks with students.  The RSC experiment looks at the effect of a ‘sports drink’ on performance in a 100m run.  There is a comprehensive risk assessment, and suggestion that collaboration with the PE department might be appropriate, which I thought was good.

However, the experimental design itself wasn’t ideal – there was no real control condition or attempt at a blind (or even double blind) test.  Personally, I would probably have used each student as their own control.   The first measurement would be the time for the initial 100m run, followed by a timed rest during which they either drink water or the ‘sports drink’, and then finally timing their 100m run again.  The dependent variable would therefore be the change in time, rather than the average group time.

My main thoughts about the experiment though, were to wonder what the purpose of the study were.  It is purported to be a global study, with results being uploaded to the RSC website and displayed on a world map and in a bar chart.  But what exactly will this show?  Will different countries have different average 100m runs?  And if so, what will that signify? 

The RSC Press office tweeted the following about the experiment:

  • We wanted to do something quick, easy and open to discussion.  We also have to fit in with…
  • schools’ timetables and resources.  If they had a spare day we could devote a much longer expereiment though I’m not…
  • sure how many kis (sic) would want to keep running all day!

The instructions for the experiment actually say “There is unlikely to be any effect from sports drinks on a 100 metre run, therefore we wanted to introduce a critical evaluation part of the experiment for the students to discuss in the classroom.” Which suggests that the main point of the experimental design is to provide a model which needs improving.  Whilst I’m all for students learning about null results, I think many teachers would rather try an experiment that was likely to show some differences.

Using live data from around the country is not new.  For example, the Wellcome Trust ‘In the Zone’ project has live data on the site. You can compare data from across the country, and there is still time to take part in this, using the kits that have been delivered to every school.

Last year, during the International Year of Chemistry, there was a Global Water experiment.  During the time the experiment was live, over 100000 students took part in 4 different activities and uploaded their data to the website.  Although data collection is now closed, the experimental protocols are still available, and would make an interesting project for schools.  The data is also still available allowing truly global comparison of water sources.

The Open Air Laboratories Network, OPAL, can also allow schools to get involved in collecting data.  They’ve got surveys on Earthworms, Bugs count, Clouds and biodiversity. The data is being analysed by professional scientists.  Well worth a look if you’re interested in the outdoor classroom.

Similar to OPAL is iSpot – a website where you can upload pictures of nature, and the online community will then identify what it is that you have photographed.

Which is why I thought that the RSC had missed a great opportunity here.  I know that they wanted to link to the Olympics (who doesn't?), but there are lots of great crowdsourced, real science projects that are being done out there. 

Taking part in science – a different way.
By coincidence, today I had arranged for my kids to take part in ‘real’ research.  The Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University has a volunteer register which I have signed up to.  When researchers need experimental subjects they can advertise their project and members of the public can volunteer to take part.  I suspect that other universities (and especially psychology and neuroscience departments) have similar registers.  There could even be opportunities for classes of students to take part in experiments.

So today my kids were part of a control group in a study which is looking at planning hand movements and how it changes with age.  It showed them that science can be done by normal-looking people, and they got some sweets at the end of it.  Result!