Call me crazy, but getting together a group of students aged 8 to 17 and making them work through the same set of tasks seems like a recipe for disaster. The huge differences in educational background and maturity would derail the process from the start. Right?
I thought so. But over the past 3 months, 20 students from four schools have proven me wrong in our i, Scientist program at the Science Museum. I think it came down to one important point: when you’re asking real, new science questions, no-one knows what the answer will be.
It’s the ultimate level playing field. In the program’s final day, a ten year old noticed a key trend in a data set that a PhD-educated scientist four times his age had missed. More importantly, he immediately put his hand up and explained what he’d spotted to the whole group, including Lottolab staff, teachers and his peers.
The i, Scientist program is much more than an exercise in getting students to do an experiment. It focuses on breaking down the idea that you need to ‘know a lot’ about something to ask a good, genuine question. In the words of a 12 year old, “I realised that science isn’t just facts in a classroom. But that it’s everywhere and there are so many things to be asked.”
These new questions led to real experiments, designed by the students. I worked with the oldest school group, who used members of the public as their experimental subjects. “Nerve-wracking”, was the one-word response from one of the group when they were asked how it felt to lay out their science to public scrutiny.
In the half hour before they brought in their first participants, the group were asking critical questions about every part of the experiment, cutting out all unnecessary bits. They were trying to find out if different people preferred either ‘familiar’ or ‘new’ routes when they were navigating. With results and demographics from 40 subjects, they had the meat and bones of a genuine science study – the last update I heard was that there were clear differences in preference, but the demographic analysis was still underway.
i, Scientist can be seen as an experiment itself: can people, of any age, engage with a scientific approach and collectively come up with new, answerable questions about the world? Do we really need years of training to be scientists?
It’s a challenging journey both for the students and the facilitators, because it’s not clear where it will lead. In science, results can be negative. But the development of the group, and individuals within it, was really noticeable. In the words of one 13 year old, “My learning in every subject has changed. I don’t see the obvious, I look at all the possibilities.”
David Robertson manages public programmes at Lottolab, and helped with the organisation of the latest i, Scientist program. Lottolab are looking to expand the program, with more schools participating in 2012.