Two school children measure a balloon

Written by

You can’t be what you can’t see

minutes reading time

University experts are helping school pupils see a future in science by critically engaging with the climate crisis through outreach linked to COP26.

Last month Scotland took centre stage as the host of COP26, inviting world leaders, experts and delegates from across the world to come together to tackle the climate crisis.

At the University of Edinburgh, the Roslin Institute works on research that directly impacts climate change. Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, the Institute is home to around 500 research scientists and technical staff, postgraduate students and vets working in animal bioscience research.

Breaking down barriers

Jayne Quoiani is Education & Engagement Officer at the Roslin Institute and Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre. For her, sharing their work is vital: “Our public engagement activities have a strong emphasis on breaking down barriers to engaging with science, by challenging existing stereotypes and revealing who scientists are and how they use the scientific method in their work.”

Jayne is part of the team running the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre (EBSOC). The unique facility allows and encourages school pupils, college students, teachers, families and adults to get hands-on with real-life science. Having run several successful online programmes throughout the pandemic, the Roslin Institute’s Public Engagement with Research team saw a way they could link EBSOC’s Project Science series, which includes the Big Balloon Blow-Up experiment, to COP26 and encourage children to engage with real-life sustainability issues in the classroom.

Two school children pour sugar into a bottle of water

The Big Balloon Blow-Up

So how does the Big Balloon Blow-Up project, which uses balloons to investigate if yeast needs sugar to grow, contribute to the Roslin Institute’s research and discussions around sustainability? Jayne elaborates: “Research at the Roslin Institute supports the aims of COP26 by improving animal health and welfare and enabling sustainable livestock production, while reducing the climate impact of farming in the UK and internationally.

“We want to reveal the research that we do at the Roslin Institute, and to communicate to young people living in Scotland what people here in their part of the world are actively doing to help stop climate change and improve food security,” she continues.

The Big Balloon Blow-Up explores the links between farming and climate change, so was the perfect project to run during COP26: “We designed it to encourage pupils to explore the production of carbon dioxide by microorganisms – we use baker’s yeast – and reveal the research by Roslin scientists into gut microorganisms in cattle that produce greenhouse gases.”

Schools across Edinburgh, the Lothians, Fife and the Borders applied to take part in the project. They received a free toolkit, with equipment and consumables, an online teacher training session and learning resources, in time to coordinate the activity in school classrooms with COP26.

A school child measures water in a cylinder

“We got double the number of applications than we could accommodate. We selected 36 primary schools to take part, with priority given to those from areas of rural isolation, high socio-economic deprivation, or both,” says Jayne.

“To get as many pupils involved as possible, the schools that applied to take part but were not selected were also invited to the online training session and had full access to digital versions of the activity materials.”

Online engagement with the toolkits has been huge. The classroom version of the Big Balloon Blow-Up project has already had more than 150 downloads, with more than 8,000 pupils using the resources. The family version has had more than 230 downloads with the total number of children using the resource reaching more than 16,000.

Science in action

Amy Dixon is a Science Specialist STEM Teacher at Ratho Primary School, and STEM Development Officer for the City of Edinburgh Council. She was thrilled when hers was one of the schools selected to take part in the project: “It is really important for children to be able to link their learning at school with what is happening in the world. Taking part in this project stimulated discussion around what people who work in the field of science do and the skills they need. We linked our science investigation skills to those required by anyone working in science.”

Lynn Findlay, Head Teacher of Whitdale Primary School in Whitburn, also saw other positives emerge from the project: “We were delighted to participate in the project, not only did it fit with our school improvement priority of developing and extending our approaches to practical science within a STEM context but it supported both staff and pupils to ask questions, develop a variety of related skills, test out theories and feel like real scientists in a really fun way. It provides an approach model that can be applied to a variety of contexts for moving forward.”

Sarah Paton, Class Teacher at Whitdale Primary School, pictured below, agrees, and loved the flexibility of the experiment in widening the scientific discussion among her students: “It was lovely to see my class engaging so positively. Pupils were enthusiastic and full of ideas. From a teacher’s point of view, it was great to have an investigation that was so open ended, allowing the class to take it in the direction they wanted.”

A teacher in a mask holds a worksheet in a classroom

Building science literacy

Working with schoolchildren in this way has a huge impact, immediately in the classroom and in the long term too. Jayne is passionate about this outreach and has seen the benefits first hand: “Science education, more than ever before, needs to focus on helping children to understand how science works and give them the skills and knowledge they need to become scientifically-literate citizens. This can be done by giving our children opportunities to carry out simple scientific investigations using the scientific method. Kids, by their very nature, are curious and science is full of skills that can be used to exercise that curiosity.”

Jayne explains it’s also about going beyond that introduction to science: “We want to inspire children to aspire to science.”

A schoolchild checks water in two bottles is equal

“Research by Professor Louise Archer, a sociology of education researcher based at University College London, shows that from as young as 10 years old many children have already decided that science is not for them,” Jayne continues. “There are lots of complex social and economic reasons for this, but in essence many of these young people, especially from marginalised social groups, have low science capital. They do not see themselves having a science identity because they have not had opportunities to engage with science and scientists in their everyday lives.”

Jayne has seen this impact time and again in her work: “Having a diverse range of scientists talking about their research and career path has an impact on school children because ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. We see this first hand in EBSOC. Our hope is that building science capital through the work we do will have a positive effect on children’s lives, not just in terms of encouraging more young people to continue into science subjects, but as a tool to improve social mobility.”

Igniting a passion for science

Jayne and the team have a big finish planned for all the schools involved. All 36 schools, numbering more than 3,000 pupils and their teachers, were invited to an online celebration: “The event was a chance for everyone to feel rewarded for their efforts, share their learning and meet a scientist who, just like them, asks questions and tries to answer them using the scientific method.”

School children sit around a science experiment

Dr Amanda Warr is a Research Fellow at the Roslin Institute who took part in the celebratory event. She finds working with children has benefits both ways: “The conversations with the kids are always brilliant and they constantly surprise me with their insightful questions. The events are always a lot of fun, but they are also very useful practice in conveying my science to a non-specialist audience, which are exactly the skills that are often needed to apply the knowledge from our scientific discoveries in the real world.”

For Amanda seeing the children excited about science was incredibly rewarding: “Projects like the Big Balloon Blow-Up really help to show children that working at the cutting edge of research science is exciting and creative, and not about memorising text books. When we run engagement events with children, we really see that passion for science igniting in them.”

The event revisited the important sustainability themes of the project, completing the circle back to COP26: “The celebration event let us introduce some important issues like those that have been discussed by politicians at COP26 last month, and why sustainability is so important.”

Projects like these are vital to safeguarding our planet. Including as many people as possible in the discussion helps bring these issues into focus. “Sustainability is important for everyone,” says Amanda. “The generation in schools now will be our future leaders and scientists, and these issues will become increasingly important to everyone’s future. I hope I can help some of them realise they want to have a positive impact too, in whatever way they can.”

Two school children measure the gas in a ballon