'Zany' science projects help students learn how to communicate research findings
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A new law of physics has been quietly emerging at the University of Leicester: sound scientific principles plus a sense of humour equals better communication of science – and a lot more public interest in the subject.
The University’s pioneering Science Topics Module sees undergraduates studying physics and interdisciplinary science write, critique and publish their own mini research papers, applying scientific principles to phenomena from popular culture or everyday life. The themes range from the imaginative to the downright zany: could Batman’s cape-gliding technique really save him from a fatal crash; does Winnie the Pooh suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency; what would happen if Miley Cyrus really did “come in like a wrecking ball”?
But for all its light-hearted tone, the module has a deeply serious purpose that sits well with recent efforts to better communicate the value and attraction of science -- demonstrating to students and the public alike how scientific principles can be applied in the real world.
Not only that, the exercise – which leads to open publication of papers in the University’s own online journal – is designed to give undergraduates a realistic introduction to the rigours of publishing and peer review, providing invaluable preparation for a career in scientific research or for communication in any other field.
“We want the students to gain the ability to communicate science to a wide range of audiences,” says Dr Cheryl Hurkett, a physics teaching fellow at the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Science. “They write a paper that must stand up to scrutiny by peers in their field, but also be approachable by the public because it’s on general release. They learn to apply knowledge they have learned throughout their degree to novel situations.”
In the spring term of the third year of their degree course, students work in groups to devise and write three or four brief papers demonstrating scientific analyses of phenomena they choose, often from film. For instance, would the four-propeller powered giant aircraft seen in the Avengers movie really be possible? They also investigate problems from everyday experience – why do doors slam when windows are open, for example.
The papers are uploaded and, exactly as if they were submitted to an established scientific journal such as Nature, are received by an “editorial board” made up of fellow students. In a further mirror image of research publishing, the papers are sent out for peer review (by more fellow undergraduates), and may be accepted, rejected or returned for tweaks or a radical overhaul before final publication.
Students’ skills improve as they publish more papers, developing greater accuracy and a tighter writing style, according to Dr Hurkett.
“They get a real insight not only into how professional scientists work but also about general processes of oversight and accountability. The experience of peer reviewing gives them a greater understanding of how the marking process works because they have to mark and critique work themselves.”
The realistic experience of scientific publishing offers excellent preparation for a research career, says Dr Mervyn Roy of the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “This model gives students the chance to see how things work in miniature, and to get any mistakes out of the way early before it really affects their career.”
For those students who go on to be research scientists, the module provides a valuable early insight into the importance of measuring research impact: a key element of the new Research Excellence Framework by which universities are assessed in order to receive research funding. “We discuss research impact, including the importance of making sure you have a good reputation and not making mistakes,” says Dr Roy. “This also gives an opportunity to examine science communication, and how projects might be seen by the public.”
Another benefit of Leicester’s special topics programme – a compulsory part of the physics and interdisciplinary science degree courses – is the opportunity it offers students to engage in teamwork. However quirky the topic (extra-terrestrial Olympics, anyone?) undergraduates gain vital skills working together to examine it, according to Dr Roy. “There are very few people now doing science in the traditional way, with one person in an ivory tower. It’s all about teamwork.”
Some observers of the Leicester model, well-honed since its introduction in the physics department in 1996, have asked whether the scheme risks trivialising science, or wastes public funds on zany ‘non-topics’. But such objections miss the point that this particular module is a teaching exercise, say the tutors.
"The key is that this is not research,” says Dr Hurkett. “If we had given the students a budget and research time in the lab this would be entirely too trivial, but this is emphatically about communication and a novel way of applying science.”
The benefits of the course extend beyond the walls of the University, thanks to the extensive outreach programme it runs in local schools countywide. Some 60 science and maths undergraduates spend an afternoon a week over eight weeks in local schools, and the science topics – with their combination of fun and real science - are proving a wonderful way of engaging reluctant learners (and their teachers).
“It’s not about forcing people to become chemists or physicists: it’s all about trying to wake their interest in the world they live in,” says Jean Baxter, head of Leicester’s school and college services. Undergraduates, too, reinforce their own understanding of their subject by teaching it, she points out. “Everybody wins from this.”