27 Jun Black holes and bellybutton cheese. What happened when we opened our doors to twenty-five primary school students.
Read time: 5 minutes
Jun 27, 2019
What do primary school pupils want to know about ‘science’? A lot, it turns out.
We invited Ignite! and twenty-five students from a local primary school to join us for a day in the lab to (try to) answer some of their questions.
The bright Idea.
We first met Ignite Futures Ltd (Ignite!)! a year ago. When planning began for our inaugural Ada Lovelace Day, part of the international celebration of women in STEM (it went really well, we’re doing it again this year); the phrase “Lab_13” kept cropping up.
As Rick Hall, founder of Ignite described, “Lab_13 is an Ignite! programme that started in a Nottingham Primary School (Dovecote PS) 10 years ago; it is a space managed by children for their own investigations and scientific research and where their curiosity is given free expression.”
A Lab_13 is set up in primary schools, running experiments that let the students get answers to their own questions. Pupils choose the topics, pose the questions and get their hands dirty finding the answers. Practical, not hypothetical, child-led learning. Normally, this is done within the schools themselves, but seeing as we have laboratories…
Sign us up.
So, we got in touch with our collective, asking for a volunteer to become a ‘Scientist in Residence’. Someone who could give one day of their time to help design and lead lab-based experiments for our visiting students; cue Janine Swarbrick of HGF. A member of the BioCity collective with a background in experimental physics (and school-aged kids), who gallantly became our very first scientist in residence.
Beforehand, class six were asked “What do you want to know? What are you curious about?”.
A mountain of questions came back. Janine, Claire Russell from BioCity and Rick and Megan from Ignite! put their heads together to devise experiments to answer some of the following questions.
- Why do we get smelly breath when we don’t brush our teeth? (Ruby)
- What does cancer look like in the inside? (Samuel)
- How far can you get in a black hole and how does it feel in a black hole? (George)
- What happens to a creature so small you cannot see it with your eyes? Do they become fossils too? And how can we find them? (Gemma)
- What is behind space? (Jouial)
- How do you count atoms? (Nikodem)
Experiments planned, we set about making our open access lab ‘child-friendly’ (thoroughly cleaned, sharps bin removed etc.) prepared the supplies, decorated the walls with the students’ questions and generally readied ourselves.
And with that, (and following a very thorough health and safety briefing from Ryan, Lab Services Coordinator) we welcomed class six to BioCity Nottingham.
Let the science begin.
Question: “Why do we get smelly breath when we don’t brush our teeth?” (Ruby)
- Area of investigation: Bacteria, the discovery of penicillin and the creation of medicines
- Official hypothesis: What are the best conditions for growing bacteria?
- Unofficial hypothesis: What has more bacteria, armpits or feet and can bacteria from a bellybutton be used to make cheese?”
The day before, Ryan, spent the afternoon sterilising plates in the autoclave and creating agar solutions with purified water.
Led by Janine, the kids merrily started swabbing. Hands, feet, armpits, shoes, bellybuttons, (if it looked grubby, it was swabbed). Samples were deposited in the agar plates and left to grow in our incubator where we’ll be keeping a close eye on them. Tracking their progress and sending updates to continue the experiment.
“It was great to help the children explore the areas of science which they were fascinated by,” said Janine, our scientist in residence during a quick debrief after the students were back on the coach and heading home.
“They had some really great original ideas which we helped them to investigate. Some of the best and most important scientific discoveries have arisen from looking at the subject from a different perspective, which is why it’s so exciting to help support children to understand the world around them. Everyone was really engaged with the activities and had fun, so I felt it was a real success. I’m already looking forward to see what the students want to investigate next!”
And there will be a ‘next’. We’re doing it again, every month. We’ll be opening our doors to a different primary school for one day each month. Students will spend a day with a different scientist in residence from our collective, taking part in experiments in working laboratories with specialist equipment to answers their questions. In the next few months alone we’ll be tackling agronomy, chemistry and human tissue.
“Judging by the enthusiasm and ideas that flowed in Lab_13 BioCity, there will be plenty of scientific research going on before the end of term” Rick Hall, founder of Ignite!
The big idea.
Bacteria swabbing was just one of four activities the students took part in. “Where do medicines come from?” “How small can a fossil be?” “What if there was no gravity?” were all tackled in one eye-opening, funny, revitalising day.
That the experiments were conducted in real labs, (the hiss of an LCMSMS sparked much discussion) with equipment and materials that most primary schools can’t provide, was something we were very happy to help with. But the ‘whys?’ the ‘how’s?’ and the ‘what’s?’ the essence of what the day was really about, came from the students themselves.
We simply provided the space, the resources and the support to let them be curious. To answer the questions they think need answering, which is, in its most basic terms, the big idea behind BioCity.
Generally speaking, the people we work with are a little taller, with PhDs and businesses to run. Their questions more likely involve assays and PD1s than the existentialism of finding yourself in a black hole, but, they are still questioning something. Picking things apart and asking how and why.
True, the grown-ups are closer to solving their challenges (hopefully), and that’s ok because, for some of the students, their day with us at BioCity was the very first step they will take towards a career in science. And for those who do, who go on to make their own discoveries and tackle challenges we probably don’t realise we have yet; we’ll be here, ready for them. Giving them the space, resources and support to answer their questions; providing a home to the next generation of “curious”.
In the meantime, we’re off to find a scientist to find out what it feels like if you fall in a black hole, (George, we’ll let you know).