Young people today are growing up in a changing world and the education they receive must prepare them for the future. Schools should provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to live sustainably, mitigate climate change and adapt to life on a warmer planet. However, the school curriculum often does not encourage a deep understanding of environmental issues or develop students' abilities in critical thinking or creative problem solving.
Teachers can facilitate students to develop the skills and confidence needed to solve complex challenges by providing them with opportunities to collaborate with academics and complete meaningful citizen science. The Royal Society Partnership Grants scheme is one of the best school programs available to do just this, by enabling young people to become Tomorrow’s climate scientists and really develop the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills they will need in the future.
School and ethos
Corbridge Middle School is a state-funded middle school in Northumberland, situated in a relatively rural location a few miles away from the city of Newcastle. We value all members of our school community and strive to develop successful learners, confident individuals, and responsible citizens. As part of the education students receive, we have a strong background in STEM enrichment.
In 2014 we applied for our first Royal Society Partnership Grant with a manufacturing business in the North East. The funding allowed us to purchase temperature probes and iPads to study temperature transfers. The success of this project inspired us to apply for a second Partnership Grant in 2019 in collaboration with Newcastle University. We received funding to purchase a Davis Vantage Pro weather station shortly before schools transferred to mainly online learning during the pandemic. Suffice to say we managed to keep the project ongoing and around 40 students have been involved to date, and we have recently extended the project.
Our STEM partners
Our initial partners were Dr Elizabeth Lewis and Tess McGough from Newcastle University Engineering Department. Liz is a lecturer in Computational Hydrology, Deputy Director of Research & Innovation, and Tess is a PhD researcher. They are researching heavy rainfall events that are becoming more frequent as a result of global heating. Tess is interested in the use of school-based weather stations to collect data; by increasing the number of weather stations around the country she hopes to obtain useful and meaningful data on the sudden concentrated downpours that can result in localised flooding.
We have since expanded our STEM Partner network to involve Professor Hayley Fowler, who focuses on Climate Change Impacts at Newcastle University, representatives of the Tyne River Trust and other members of the wider community.
Our climate science project
Alongside our partners, students have considered what ‘climate change’ means and whether sudden downpours are increasing in number and intensity; it is almost impossible to simply attribute these events to climate change, so additional evidence is needed which is where our weather station plays a part. The project is run by the Weather and Climate Club and pupils have learned a great deal about weather patterns, pressure, humidity, clouds, and rainfall. The cross curricular club is led by the subject leaders of science and geography and has really strengthened collaboration between our departments.
During Phase 1 of the project students asked ‘can a school-based weather station provide accurate and useful data?’ The Newcastle University team visited our Weather and Climate Club to run workshops on using virtual reality to demonstrate the effects of heavy rainfall and how urban design can be used to soak up rainwater. Paul Mooney, the Weather Team Leader for the BBC in the North East, also came into school to answer our questions on meteorology and climate change. Our weather station has now been collecting data for two years. Through conversations and data comparison with our partners, we ascertained our weather station does indeed collect valid information.
Recently we successfully applied and have received further funding to extend the project for Phase 2, to focus on the adaptation to heavy rainfall events as these have caused localised flooding and problems with soil erosion from farmland. This phase of the project involves sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS); we are building a model SUDS house to investigate how to slow down surface runoff and therefore mitigate flooding. We visited a new housing estate and had a tour of the SUDS water reservoir that collects runoff underground. The club members predict that water-butts, ponds, green roofs and rain gardens will slow down surface runoff.
Developing STEM Skills
It is essential that young people develop an understanding of the world around them and appreciate that STEM can help solve real world problems. The Partnership Grants scheme enables this and provides an opportunity to really embed scientific inquiry skills. Our young team is exceptionally enthusiastic about finding solutions to climate change and the number of students wishing to join the club is growing.
The students decide on the direction they want their research to take. Throughout the project we have discussed a range of problems caused by global heating and climate change which need action and are facilitating the team to develop real and appropriate solutions. There are so many huge issues young people face, allowing them to work through how one of those problems can be solved will give them confidence that STEM can provide solutions to other challenges in the future.
Our pupils are working with a carpenter to design and build a model house that can be used to help understand the way in which surface runoff can be reduced with simple additions such as water butts, green roofs, ponds or rain gardens. It might be wet and a little messy, but the pupils are loving it.
The project involves working scientifically and active participation, writing a prediction and method, controlling the variables, measuring and recording data, considering conclusions and evaluating the investigation. Club members will submit their reports for a Bronze CREST Award so there is tangible recognition of their success. We also aim to submit their work to The Big Bang Science Competition next year.
Our hands-on STEM project involves the ability to actively and skillfully analyse information, evaluate designs, reflect on thinking, synthesise new ideas, and propose creative solutions generated by observation, reflection, reasoning, and communication, as a guide to action. Those light bulb moments are priceless.
Communication and oracy
We have engaged with academics, working meteorologists and river experts. The students presented their project at the online Royal Society Student Conference in February 2022. Following their presentation there were questions from Fellows of the Royal Society. What better way to give young people the experience and confidence to talk to their peers and seniors?
The data collected from our weather station is uploaded at www.weatherlink.com. Using the digital interface of the weather station has really helped the club members improve their scientific skills. The team has learned how to manipulate data and how to ask questions.
In Phase 1 the students struggled with the aforementioned data manipulation. There are so many fields of information in the data sets collected by the weather station that the spreadsheets seemed daunting, but the team persevered and, with guidance, are improving their techniques.
The Weather and Climate Club shared their understanding of climate change with the whole school by running a Mock COP26 event for all pupils. They have also taken our own climate action through building the rain garden with Tyne River Trust and by planting sixty trees in the school grounds.
Taking proactive steps and raising awareness helps to reduce climate anxiety in young people. Once the club has finished testing the SUDS model it will be used as a teaching resource in school enabling other students to develop a deep understanding of how STEM can be used to study and solve problems. The project has also had wider implications such as promoting an understanding of sustainable development, alongside a sense of global citizenship and social justice.
The Weather and Climate Club have a trip planned to visit the Newcastle University SUDS labs. After we complete the SUDS investigation members of the club would also like to study the effect of rainfall on soils which can lead to soil erosion and they would like to compare our rainfall data to the height of local rivers in more detail to see what the lag times are from rain falling to river rising.
Taking part in the Tomorrow’s climate scientists scheme is so much more than a box-ticking exercise to impress the school’s Leadership Team or to influence Ofsted (although the extra-curricular work we do in school was highlighted as a strength in a recent inspection from which the school was identified as Outstanding). The scheme is about conducting useful citizen science, encouraging young people to learn how STEM can solve real world problems and truly prepare them for the future on our changing planet. It can also be used to complement a curriculum which lacks detail on climate education and sustainability and to promote a love of science. The Royal Society Schools Engagement team provides fabulous support and a range of events to really stretch and challenge Tomorrow’s climate scientists.
Image credit: agnormark