It is important to engage all age groups with health and biomedical research but school-age children are often a focus for engagement activities for a few key reasons. First, they represent the next generation of scientists, policy makers, research participants and all of the other roles that influence science and its ability to progress. Secondly, it is especially important that young people are interested, informed and engaged with science and research so that they can make informed decisions in the areas in which these things will affect their lives - like health behaviours, influencing research, and making career choices. Thirdly, schools create a useful in to a community as a whole. They are one of the few places where large groups gather, creating a captive audience, and almost all members of a community are likely to have links to the local school. Young people can act as engagers and agents for change within their communities.
These benefits of running engagement activities in schools, as well as some of the key challenges of doing so, were explored by a panel of school engagement experts from around the world in an event captured in this article.
"What I am taking away is that it's not just getting across the science that's complicated, it's the whole enterprise: whether it's engaging parents, or teachers, or the connection between science and the rest of society.... But if it works you are not just improving young people's standing you are raising their aspirations, changing a community, potentially improving whole nation's aspirations".
Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement, Wellcome Trust, UK
The Discussion: what were the key themes?
Caption: Video of the panel discussion exploring different projects and experiences engaging young people with science in school environments.
Encourage New Careers
One of the most common aims of engaging school students is to encourage them to pursue a career in science. However, for many children and their parents an interest or aptitude for science means one thing: become a medical doctor.
It is often felt that becoming a doctor will bring personal economic gain and for many getting out of, or staying out of, poverty is a key priority.
"This whole idea of becoming a medical doctor is like a cancer in the country [Zimbabwe]" - Frank Muzenda, Next Generation Biomedical Scientists, Zimbabwe
Students also often base their career choices on a career path within their family, or paths that they are otherwise familiar with, like the army.
So how can engagement practitioners present other career options as viable to students and, just as importantly, get the buy-in of parents who may have other aspirations for their child?
Inspire the Students
Exposing young people to the career options available, broadening perspectives and inspiring them with activities to show the excitement and usefulness of biomedical science is a good mechanism for encouraging careers in science. This can include presenting the business advantages of a research career with sessions on business planning, patenting and networking with investors to show the financial potential of the career.
"Our problems are our wealth" - Abraham Mamela, Infers Studios, Botswana
Engage the Parents
Engaging the students alone is not enough. Parents are influencing their children every day, and may have had aspirations set for them from a young age and years of engagement to encourage it. It is key to involve parents in the activities be it by encouraging the students to engage their parents; organising showcases of student-led projects for parents; having career days and presentations about career paths specifically for parents; or introducing parents to real people in the field who have been successful in a science research career.
Provide Role Models
Presenting students and their parents with role models - scientists from a similar background who are doing well financially through a research career - can open doors and give confidence in the careers that are being offered.
Don't forget Jobs that don't Exist Yet
Some of the careers that might be encouraged might not yet be available in the region the school is in, and with the rapid advancement of science and technology they may not exist anywhere yet. So how do you encourage students to pursue them? For the former it was posited that science should be presented as a global endeavour. It may not be a career that is available locally, but that does not make it out of reach.
Beyond careers, engagement with health research is essential because it teaches children what it means to take care of themselves, with topics like drug adherence, and gives them the tools for better decision making about their health and the health of those around them. It also teaches them that science is not an alien activity taking place in labs but part of life - individual and social.
Cultural and Religious Issues
For some, the association of scientists with atheism is an issue in encouraging children to engage with science, and especially take up careers in it. To help with this it is important that young people, and their parents where possible, meet scientists from their local area who have a similar religious and cultural background to them to show that scientists can uphold their cultural and religious beliefs and swage any concerns about the impact a career in science may have on their faith.
A guide does not seem to exist on developing activity content based on the competencies that are seen as essential or desirable for students to have. Guidelines on schools engagement should in theory be led by the competencies we are trying to cultivate in the young people - for example creative thinking or teamwork - but these are not made explicit anywhere. To define and agree upon these competencies,and create guidance for schools engagement that leads from them, more work is needed on extracting key competencies from a range of case studies.
Resources for Hands-on Activity
For some schools the resources for activities, like labs, do not exist. Suggestions to overcome this and allow children attending these schools to experience real science included running activities where the students themselves develop models that the school can then keep and, with buy in from ministers, building shared spaces with these facilities that several schools in a region can share.
Simplifying Complex Information
With any science activity or demonstration some simplification is needed. But how much is too much?
The panel agreed that in many cases whether the science is right or wrong is not the most important factor as most of the aims of the activities mentioned were around stimulating interest and excitement. Especially at the start of an activity the most important thing is to make it compelling by having a hook. This hook can be a fun demonstration, or a social discussion about issues that affect the group in their everyday lives. The science can be added in with increasing layers of complexity once the students are drawn in and committed to the subject.
"You can get across the most complex theory in the world, if the person is desperate to learn it doesn't matter how complicated it is" - Imran Khan, Wellcome Trust, UK
Caption: Graphic recording (with audio) of the plenary discussion following the panel debate honing in on some of the key issues raised around school engagement.
The Panel: Who are they and what do they do?
Chair: Imran Khan, Wellcome Trust, UK
Grace Mwango - KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya
In her work: Grace manages KEMRI's online engagement platform for schools where the main objective is to strengthen awareness and interest in school science. She also manages the "I'm a scientist-get me out of here" project in Kenya. The project, which lets students talk live with a scientist over the internet, will be rolled out in schools in Kilifi, Nairobi Kisumu and Nakuru in 2017.
In the panel: Grace talks about their programmes bringing schools into the labs and research centre, showing the students real microscope images, blood storage and demonstrations, and the issues around misconceptions that can both be solved by and arise from these activities.
Duy Vu Thanh - Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, Vietnam
In his work: Thanh manages the schools engagement programme at OUCRU. The programme works to promote active participation of school students in science, and to enable the students to develop their scientific competency and potential through having interacted with scientists.
In the panel: Thanh describes their four engagement models in schools: a magazine; a student-led research project; an online "chat with a scientist" event; and a social media campaign. He highlights that having the activities led by the students and scientists has been key to the success of the projects.
Hephzi Tagoe - GhScientific, Ghana
In her work: Hephzi is the CEO of GhScientific and a final year PhD student at University College London's Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. GhScientific serves as the voice of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths community in Ghana with a focus on promoting science communication and public engagement with science in Ghana.
In the panel: Hephzi describes her work taking science activities and demonstrations into schools and the challenges around accessing schools and gauging the level of complexity of the activities for different age groups to make them compelling, accurate and understandable.
Frank Muzenda- Next Generation Bio-Medical Scientists, Zimbabwe
In his work: As part of African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology outreach activities, Frank was appointed as the coordinator of the Next Generation Biomedical Scientists (NGBS) Programme to increase school children's awareness of the importance of biomedical knowledge in society. The programme is implemented in collaboration with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education. It provides career guidance lectures, practical activities and science camps to inspire more children to go into careers in science.
In the panel: Frank explains the science camps where students are able to connect the theory they learn with real life experiences, identifying challenges in their communities, positing solutions using their science knowledge, and learning how to communicate the science they learn to different audiences. Frank highlights the importance of generating visibility and interest in biomedical science to increase Africa's contribution to science and get away from the thinking that becoming a doctor is the only avenue for those interested in science.
The content on this page forms part of the online report for the 2017 International Engagement Workshop "It's Complicated: navigating scientific complexity in public and community engagement". To read more about hands-on and school engagement visit the schools engagement and hands-on science theme from the workshop. To read more about the full workshop and access the rest of the report including video presentations, discussion summaries, and tools, visit the workshop page.
This work, unless stated otherwise, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License