Wednesday 20 August 2014

High school students as research partners: working with Nuffield Placement Students

 by Jane Bunting (@DrMJBunting) and Rebecca Williams (@Volcanologist)

Meanwhile, back in the lab...

This week, the blog is back indoors, where Jane and Rebecca are spending August helping some Sixth Form students get a taste of 'real science' in the summer before they apply for University.  Five students have placements with us in GEES through the Nuffield Foundation Research Placements Scheme, which will enable them to be assessed for a British Science Association CREST Gold Award.

Rebecca did a Nuffield Placement herself in the summer after her first year of A Levels.  Neither the Nuffield scheme or the CREST Awards had been done before at Rebecca’s school. An eager biology teacher, Dr Bridgeman, had heard of the scheme and so started it up that year with Rebecca and two of her school friends being the first students to go through it. They weren’t provided with placements, but rather had to find them for themselves. At the time, Rebecca knew she enjoyed Geography, Science and Maths. She was also a bit obsessed with Time Team and she has blogged before about how her journey into geology really started by wanting to be a geophysicist. The only company she could find locally which did geophysics was a consultancy company for the oil and gas company, TGS-Nopec (as they were then known). Rebecca wrote a letter (no email back then!) asking if they would take her on as a work experience student and was delighted when they did. It was a phenomenal experience. Rebecca worked on a project called ‘Hydrocarbon prospectivity along the eastern seaboard, offshore northwest Europe’. She doesn’t have a good memory, but the report is sat next to her as she types this – a testament to how important the experience was. Rebecca found that the geophysical interpretation of the seismic lines wasn’t what interested her. Rather, it was the geology – how is the oil formed, where does it come from, where is it stored, how is it trapped and where can it be found? When Rebecca then had to fill out her UCAS application a month or so later, it was geology degrees she applied to, and not the geophysics that she thought she was going to do, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Nuffield Scheme really did change Rebecca’s path in life. The results from that project were eventually presented by TGS-Nopec at the PETEX Conference – the premier oil and gas conference!

Students doing placements work with a supervisor for 4-6 weeks on a 'real' research project - one where the supervisor doesn't know what will happen or be found out.  The students are expected to read around their topics, contribute to discussions about the design of experiments or studies, plan their own time, learn to use different pieces of equipment, collect data and interpret it, and produce a report and a talk or poster at the end of the placement - of course there is lots of help available, from the supervisor, from technical staff, from other students and researchers in related fields, but it is still quite a challenge.  This year's students all seem to be making the most of it, and are filling their lab notebooks with lots of lovely data.
Tinashe weighing an ear of wheat
surface of a wheat leaf: the 'squashed donuts' are the stomata

Jordan, Leah, Charlotte and Tinashe from local sixth forms at Wyke and Sirius Academy are all working with Jane and Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1), who also blogs here, on a pilot study of the effects of small climate changes on spring wheat, which is linked to a bigger project being run by the Network Ecology Group called "The impacts of climate-warming on farmland food-webs and ecosystem services".  In this project, 24 plots are marked out in a field of spring wheat.  Half of these are warmed by 2 oC, the sort of change in summer temperature which we are likely to see in our region within the next century according to predictive models.  Since the warming will dry out the soil, half of the warmed plots and half of the non-warmed plots are also given some extra water, so some plots are warmer and drier, and some are just warmer.  We're studying wheat plants collected from the different plots in the field experiment, and also growing our own in the controlled environment rooms in the GEES building, where special lights on timers mimic day and night cycles, the room temperature is controlled, and neither rabbits nor aphids can snack on the growing leaves - the indoors experiment should therefore help us understand how the plants respond to the climate changes without the rest of the food web complicating the picture.  Jordan is studying how biomass allocation varies (essentially 'plant budgeting', looking at how plant resources are divided between light capture, water capture and reproduction).  Charlotte is looking at the effects of the climate changes on the grain yield of the wheat plants.  Leah and Tinashe are looking in more detail at whether the plants can adapt to grow in different conditions by varying the number of stomatal cells in their leaves (an introduction to studying stomata aimed at students can be found here). 

Jordan and Leah cutting up wheat plants
These data, along with other aspects of the plants being measured by Jane and Lindsey, will form the basis for an initial paper on the response of this important crop plant to anticipated climate changes (which of course will get blogged about here) and for a grant application to extend the work; we need to show that our experiments will produce interesting results before we can ask for funding, so these projects are playing an important role in helping us develop this research area.

Jodie uses a digital camera to photograph her thin sections
Jodie joins us from Hessle High School and Sixth Form College. Jodie is interested in geology and chemistry so we’re convincing her that volcanology is an excellent subject! Jodie is doing a research project on the Green Tuff Ignimbrite from Pantelleria with Rebecca. In particular she is looking at thin sections of the ignimbrite to look for features that she can use to interpret how the ignimbrite was formed. This project is a continuation of a long-running project that started with Rebecca’s PhD in 2006. It’s a small, but important part of a much bigger research jigsaw, and the results look promising! We’ll be blogging more about the project next week. If the results look good, Jodie and Rebecca will be presenting the research at the UK’s volcanology conference which this year is hosted in Norwich; Jodie is getting real experience of working on a research project at the cutting-edge of Rebecca’s science.

The Nuffield Schemes offer a wonderful opportunity for students to try out real science; it's very different from school!  For us, it's an excellent way to communicate with the next generation of scientists and consumers of scientific findings, and gives the students involved a taste of scientific work, a boost for their university or job applications and helps them make better course and career choices.  If you're a student reading this, ask your teachers about the scheme or go to this link.  If you're a scientist, we urge you to consider taking on placement students through the scheme - it might even help you get that crucial bit of data to progress your research next summer.

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