How to enhance learning with real-life data

Becky Parker

Becky Parker is a professor of Physics who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Alongside her role as director for the Institute for Research in Schools, an organisation that seeks to transform STEM education through access to real science, she has also taught, and still teaches at a variety of schools.

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Image credit: Flickr // jeremywilburn. Image credit: Flickr // jeremywilburn.

With the drive for 21st Century skills, we're often discussing the importance of real-life learning in education. This could come in the form of practical hands-on activities, or even just using news stories and contextual examples to enrich the topic. But what if we could take this one step further and actually get students involved in real scientific research?

In my view, GCSE Science has precious little to do with actually doing science; the problem being that the curriculum is focused around learning set things and finding “In English, you have the chance to produce your own writing.”the exact answers. There is a stark contrast between Science and the Arts in this way. In English, you have the chance to produce your own writing, and in subjects like Music and Art, you have a distinct freedom to create. We need to encourage that kind of ownership in Science, giving students the opportunity to identify and decide what areas they find interesting and then get them involved in a real scientific challenge.

There are loads of initiatives that are trying to show students what it’s like to be scientists and engineers, but even more valuable than this is the opportunity to contribute to the cutting-edge of research, and allowing young people to actually play a role in real-life science.

This is where data comes in. There are huge records in areas including particle physics and astronomy, including data from the International Space Station and NASA, or the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), all of which are available to the public. This might seem daunting at first, but once they get going, I’ve found that both students and teachers are really enthused by the opportunity. While the Government is saying “you need to learn your times tables”, I’ve had students saying: “let’s use neural networks to analyse this data”.

My question is: why do we underestimate young people? Students do such extraordinary things – so why not just give them the chance? There’s a common misconception that students are led to believe that science is all sewn up into facts and figures, when in actual fact it’s not; it’s frayed and incomplete, and more importantly, it’s not beyond them. You don’t need a PhD to get involved in some capacity, and there are already lots of students finding their interest in certain fields at the forefront of science and technology. For example, there are plenty of students learning Python and other coding languages in their spare time, and this is only going to increase as the years go by; they’re taking on real-life challenges where they can contribute to the knowledge of the field.

The confidence that these students can get when they realise they’re capable is incredible. For example, a few years ago, I had “Why do we underestimate young people?”a really shy Year 9 student approach me and say that he wanted to help work on the website. He barely looked me in the eye, instead focusing his gaze to the floor, so I just said “OK then, let’s get started”. This same young man has since been to university, developed a platform that is now being used at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), and has presented at conferences for the organisation! Had you known him in Year 9, you would never have guessed it, but given the chance to excel, he took it and ran with it. This is one of the best things about being a teacher, seeing these children grow and become confident individuals who can communicate with experts, work in teams and convey their ideas with conviction.

People tell me “it’s great that you’re getting your students to be like scientists”, and to this I respond that there’s no “like” about it, they are scientists, and they are contributing to the cutting edge of research. If we give them the opportunity to be active generators, rather than passive consumers, they will be able to flourish by themselves!

Do you utilise real-world data in your lessons? Share your experiences below.

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