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ESRC: New software brings science to life for young people

The use of new technology is helping students to become real ‘science investigators’. Researchers funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have developed a software toolkit that shows how such an approach sparks and sustains students’ interest in science.

"Science can be hard to sell to young people as a subject for further education or as a career," says Professor Mike Sharples from Nottingham University who co-led the project. "But science shapes the world we live in. Today, people need the analytical tools to understand it and to see through the bad science propagated in the media."

The project shows that the nQuire software engages children’s interest more effectively than traditional science lessons where teachers often dispense science facts from a classroom desk. By using mobile computing devices, the software allows students to go out and set up their own projects. They can both find and analyse the data and reach their own conclusions based on hypotheses which they have chosen themselves.

"The software is a high-tech twist on the traditional lesson plan - guiding pupils through planning scientific experiments, collecting and analysing data and discussing the results," says Professor Eileen Scanlon, co-leader of the project from the Open University. "After using the programme, we found that students were better able to grasp the principles underpinning sound scientific practice." 

School children in Nottingham and Milton Keynes used portable netbooks with built-in cameras, location sensors and voice recorders, as well as data probes for measuring atmospheric conditions. They went out into the playground, a local nature reserve and around their homes to gather data. Their netbooks were wirelessly linked together and their data readings of light, wind and temperature were updated to a central database, enabling the sharing and analysing of their findings back in class.

The software covers three key topics of the new science curriculum - Myself, My Environment and My Community and requires the students to reason about the natural sciences as a complex system and to explore how others relate to the world around them. The programme also allows teachers to select and modify the scripts and to monitor and guide the students’ activities. Projects using nQuire can also be taken home, helping integrate home and school learning and engage parents in the work.

The project showed how the programme not only had a positive effect on learning outcomes, but also led to sustained enjoyment of science lessons and a small but genuine improvement in pupils' understanding of the scientific process. Professor Sharples suggests that by supporting a process of enquiry, the software helps students develop an analytic attitude towards their lives. It encourages them to ask questions and to look for deeper reasons.

"Our study shows that this method of personal enquiry helps children develop the skills needed to understand the impact of science on everyday life and make better personal decisions about their own health, diet and their impact on the environment."

For further information contact
Professor Mike Sharples
Email: Mike.Sharples@nottingham.ac.uk
Telephone: 0115 951 3716
Mobile: 07920 292915
ESRC Press Office:
Danielle Moore
Email: danielle.moore@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone 01793 413122
Jeanine Woolley
Email: jeanine.woolley@esrc.ac.uk
Telephone 01793 413119

Notes for editors:

This release is based on the findings from 'Scripted Inquiry Learning', a three year research project which is part of the Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme led by the University of Nottingham and the Open University. The project was jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and was supported byScienceScope,a company that develops sensing and data logging equipment.

The project has developed an open source toolkit called nQuire for personal inquiry learning. Running on netbooks and smartphones, the nQuire system guides students through devising and planning scientific experiments, collecting and analysing data and discussing the results. The project carried out trials in schools at Nottingham and Milton Keynes. The inquiry topics included heart rate and fitness, micro-climates, healthy eating, sustainability and the effect of noise pollution on birds.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information and communications technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.  

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