IRIS, the launch

Do you remember your school science lessons? At a push there was a ripple tank, bunsen burner and a few dancing colourful flames. With so many equations, definitions and colour changes to fit in to an already packed timetable the thought of doing an experiment without knowing the answer was unheard of. The Institute of Researchers in Schools are re-writing the science curriculum. Dr Becky Parker teaches physics at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, where alongside you’re A-Levels you complete genuine scientific research tracking cosmic rays, studying soil or attempting to cure Multiple Sclerosis.

Dr Parker’s vision is to empower young people to become part of the science community and solve global problems. The beauty in the research of the young is that there is no expectation: there is no funding deadline, no research excellence framework and no cynicism. There aren’t ethical dilemmas or rushed paper submissions because your 16-years old and you don’t really have a line manager. Dr Parker’s aim was to get the students to excited and let them enthuse their teachers by acting as intermediary between schools, university and industry. The teachers are relieved- freed up to teach their subject and enthusiastic enough to fall back in love with their profession.

Lord Martin Rees is sad for the young people of today. When he was younger he could take apart and reassemble radios- but today there are so many parts you’d never get it back together. To him science came alive in an age without Health and Safety. We’re all born scientists: but our initial passions are quenched on entering the secondary arena. We become complacent and think “all the answers are at the back of the book”. But that’s not what real science is like.

The first children’s gallery at the Science Museum in 1931. The museum welcomes 2 million students a year and just over a quarter come with their schools. Today it is home to the launch the Institute of Research in Schools (IRIS), largely thanks to Dame Mary Archer, chair of the trustees of the National Science Museum Group.

The first pieces of IRIS data are presented by students from across the South East. Canterbury, Tower Hamlets, Sutton.  For the first time these students aren’t being told “Here’s an expensive piece of equipment, follow this plan-“, but instead “Here’s an expensive piece of kit, see what you can do with it. 

“Maybe because we’re young and still learning, we’re less afraid to try new things”.

Dr Parker took a school group to CERN where they became transfixed by the Medipix photon counters and particle detectors. Take note: when I visited CERN in Year 11, I became transfixed by the Chanel shop in central Geneva. Simon Langton students linked the Medipix detectors to some mates of theirs at NASA to create detectors to board the ISS. Cal Hewitt is still at school but has seen software he has developed launching from a rocket in Kazakhstan. Using his Langton Ultimate Cosmic Ray Intensity Detector (LUCID), Cal has tracked the number of protons and electrons per second, and has localised the ‘South Atlantic Anomaly’. In another project, students at Simon Langton are also investigating proteins within the myelin sheath (MBP2). There are a wonderful from St Paul’s Way Trust school who are linking type 2 diabetes with genes and ethnicity across their East London borough. These students are using galaxy clustering to provide evidence for dark matter, they’re functionalising proteins to allow early detection of Alzheimer’s using MRI and their tracking the radiation in the sea.

It’s a very carefully considered program, which runs a series of student advisory groups alongside experimental research. The biggest problem for IRIS is getting a mentor/ academic lead. Hopelessly underqualified on careers paths with science degrees, science is incredible far away to people in this audience, but it’s just a process of asking questions and finding answers. Have you ever met a child who can’t ask why?  But why should you bother?  ‘Create the Future,’ is an RAEng/ QE report that revealed most 16 – 17 year olds want to contribute to something in society- and as pre-trained scientists it’s up to support them in that.

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