When high school pupils experience science the same way as researchers... Results of a unique six-year programme devised by a team of researchers for high school pupils in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region

October 05 2010

For the last six years, researchers in biology have been conducting a unique experiment aimed at high school pupils. Each week they offer entire high school classes several days of complete immersion in scientific processes, in a laboratory entirely given over to them at an Inserm institute on the Marseille-Luminy campus (University of the Mediterranean). A thousand or so high school pupils per year have thus experienced miniature research placements supervised by PhD students. Details of the programme have just been published in the journal PloS Biology.

A desertion of the scientific disciplines has been witnessed in recent years. Scientific careers therefore need to be made more attractive to the younger generations. That was the aim of a programme designed by Constance Hammond, research director at Inserm. She devised a way of stimulating the curiosity, imagination and creativity of young people by allowing them to get right to the heart of scientific research. The high school pupils approached research through its very core: the construction of understanding.

Launched in 2004, the programme gets all the pupils from one high school class majoring in science to take part in miniature research projects that tie in with the school curriculum. The class is split into four groups, each of which is supervised by a PhD student. Part one consists of observation and of devising a research project (on a predetermined topic): what would you like to study and how are you going to study it? Part two involves designing the required experiments for the project, conducting them, evaluating any problems encountered, and discussing the results. The final part is interpreting and presenting the work, which the other pupils and researchers are then asked to comment on. The workshops set up by Constance Hammond and her staff from the 'Tous chercheurs' association cover various areas of biological research such as using fluorescent proteins (molecular biology), response to infection (immunology), brain development and plasticity (neuroscience), the study of water pollution (sustainable development), treatment of type 1 diabetes (physiology), etc.

"Like in 'real' research, the young people don't know in advance what results they are going to obtain," points out Constance Hammond, who was a researcher and lecturer in neurobiology for 17 years.

"It's astonishing that French teacher training in science up to high school level and beyond doesn't include compulsory laboratory placements. Consequently, teachers often have only a theoretical understanding of scientific processes. They imagine them to be quick and linear, with the researcher always getting the result they expected. So experiments in practical lessons are often nothing more than checks, which don't teach pupils to think and don't train them in constructive criticism in the sciences," Hammond adds.

The teaching style is very different from the style high school pupils are used to. The pupils are guided by young researchers providing supervision. There is no 'right' or 'wrong' result established in advance; if an experiment does not give a result that can be interpreted, the pupils are encouraged to try to understand why and to start again. Discussion is open, and the junior researchers merely give guidance on the research hypotheses produced and the protocols used. They do, however, insist on the need to check results very carefully.

The teachers of the classes taking part are also involved: they choose in advance the subjects they would like to look at in the laboratory and plan their lessons around the subject after the miniature research placement. The young researchers receive training before the sessions, and thus acquire completely new teaching experience.

These 'extramural' laboratories for high school pupils on university campuses could be extended to other regions of France, believes Constance Hammond and her staff. The associated teaching method could be applied to all the scientific disciplines, mathematics (1), physics and biology. By accommodating centrally the kind of high performance equipment you would find in a scientific research laboratory, these laboratories could host high school pupils from a whole region in ideal conditions. The pupils would benefit from high-level, close supervision. For Constance Hammond, "It's also a chance for high school pupils to visit a university, and to work with the university careers and information service to decide what subjects to choose before their senior year".

(1) There is also a maths laboratory (Hippocampe maths), based on the Tous Chercheurs laboratory model, on the Luminy campus

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Know more

“Creative research science experiences for high school students“
PloS Biology, Community Page, published 21 Sep 2010 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000447

Research contact
Constance Hammond
Inserm Research Director
Coordinator, Equipe de recherche technologique en éducation Hippocampe n°47
Chair of the voluntary association "Tous Chercheurs" based on the premises of Inmed
Tel: 04 91 82 81 10 / 45

Press contact
Séverine Ciancia
Tel: 01 44 23 60 86

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