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  YOUNG PEOPLE AND SCIENCE  -  When research becomes child’s play

It is difficult to introduce research culture into the classroom. So much so that you would expect the countries with the longest-standing scientific tradition to be best equipped for the task. Yet it is on the easternmost fringes of the European Research Area, on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, that one of the most innovative and effective initiatives in this field is quietly being developed.

Children identifying signs of the presence of one of the island’s owls, with the helpof a researcher at the Cypriot Institute of Forestry.
Children identifying signs of the presence of one of the island’s owls, with the helpof a researcher at the Cypriot Institute of Forestry.
The project, known as MERA, takes the form of a competition aimed at primary schools (6 to 12 years), middle schools (12 to 15) and high schools (15 to 18). Complete classes, or groups of ten for the older pupils, compete at one of three levels, five schools per level receiving prizes of between €1 300 and €2 700. The successful schools must spend their winnings on improving their science teaching, by buying textbooks, magazines or laboratory equipment, or even organising a study trip to an institute or laboratory located in Greece. Since last year, participants have also received nearly €500 during the project to cover expenses.

Pupils, teachers and a researcher
This year sees what is now a tried-and-tested scheme celebrate its fifth anniversary. From September, schools can submit projects in line with one of the priority themes set by the Cyprus Research Promotion Foundation (RPF). The choice is extensive and includes “mathematics and the information technologies”, “physics and chemistry”, “health and biology”, “energy”, “technology” and “the environment” as well as less ‘exact’ sciences such as “civilisation”, “social sciences” or “educational sciences”. Projects are submitted by the pupils and their teacher plus – and this is where MERA is unique – an experienced researcher. The Foundation itself proposes a list of volunteer scientists whom the schools can contact with a request for assistance in preparing their entries.

Customised projects
"The closing date for entries is November when a scientific committee meets to look at the projects submitted,” explains Mattheos Spanos, Manager of the MERA scheme at the RPF. “The committee selects those projects that seem viable and may make technical or methodological recommendations, or even sound certain warnings, to improve the quality of the work. The selected classes are then invited to attend a week’s training just before the Christmas holidays. It is after this meeting that the teams really set to work on their projects, for a period of five months ending in May. Then comes the final assessment and prize-giving ceremony to which all the participants are invited.” 

The winning projects have been remarkably diverse, ranging from “Car-free towns. A proposal for the development of sustainable towns” (2004/2005 winner in the ‘primary’ category) to “The dietary habits of the inhabitants of the village of Peristerona, in relation to the Mediterranean diet” (2003/2004 winner). 

To date, about 150 of the island’s 500 schools have participated in the scheme. That makes 1 500 pupils who have had the chance to discuss science with about 60 researchers. For their part, the scientists could not be more pleased at this opportunity for contact with such a wealth of energy and intelligence.

One researcher relates her experiences

Aravella Zahariou, of the Cyprus Institute of Education, participated in the “Car-free towns” project together with a group of 15 ten-year-olds and a teacher.

"We started by examining the situation, especially in terms of the motivation among the population, by drawing up questionnaires that the children then asked residents to fill in. They also conducted interviews. The number of cars was counted at different locations and at different times, as well as the number of people travelling in each car. We also wanted to count the number of bicycles but soon noticed that there weren’t any! The children carried out internet searches to obtain information on European policies on road traffic, and questioned experts. 

The aim from the outset was to formulate concrete recommendations to be presented to the decision-makers. It soon became clear that the Cypriots had to change their attitude to cars: They find it very difficult to do without them in their day-to-day lives.

Finally, we held a meeting with the politicians during which we made three proposals. First, that the government and local authorities should expand the cycle path network – and we made a start on determining what routes they should take. Secondly, we stressed the need for people to be encouraged to use buses and other forms of public transport that are very rare in Cyprus. Finally, we urged action to increase public awareness of the issue and thereby encourage people to avoid using their cars whenever possible.

We were surprised at the way in which the children interacted, quickly finding out about a situation and analysing it. They acquired skills in the field of the environment and sustainable development, but also in the area of communication, dialogue and discussion, and critical thinking. They learned to organise each stage in their research and to behave as active and responsible citizens. The teachers used other learning procedures and reviewed their methods. As for me, I deepened my field of research and made changes to the way I teach in the light of this experience which was very important for me.”


  Bio-industry and teaching  
  The Biotechnology Explorer programme was developed by the US company Bio-Rad in 1995 and has already enabled a million pupils worldwide to discover the techniques of genetic engineering. 

The method involves distributing to secondary schools kits containing all the material needed to carry out experiments in biotechnology. “The material is of the same quality as that supplied to professionals, but it is sold at a much lower price and adapted to the needs of schools,” explains Dominic Delaney, Head of Biotechnology Explorer Europe. “Also, any products deemed to be dangerous were replaced with others that are perfectly safe.” The experiments proposed facilitate the teaching of abstract concepts by relating them to everyday life and introducing an element of play. Children learn, for example, how DNA enables the judicial police to test genetic fingerprints or to modify the gene of an invisible bacteria to render it bioluminescent and tangible.   

The Bio-Rad kits were designed to enable students to touch, handle and observe. “In an age when many students are turning away from science subjects, it is important to demystify science. But it is also a question of making young people aware that any progress entails a risk, whether acceptable or otherwise,” stresses Dominic Delaney. Bio-Rad also offers teachers one-day training courses as well as teaching resources that can be consulted on the internet and downloaded if desired. 

"Europe needs a million more researchers to match the United States,” stresses the programme manager. To his mind, this is a figure that more than warrants a helping hand from high-tech industries in the teaching of science, an attitude that has long been held in the United States.

 


  Research Promotion Foundation  
  MERA is the result of co-operation between the Ministry of Education, Cyprus University and the Research Promotion Foundation (RPF). The latter is independent of the state (although financed mainly through public funds) and its mission is to promote research through various means. This quite unique institution finances new projects, maintains links between the island’s researchers and the scientific diaspora, and helps Cypriot scientists seeking to respond to European calls for tenders.

 


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