Dee Chamberlain, teacher and Design and Technology subject lead at St Gregory's Catholic Primary School, describes their Partnership Grant investigation into the importance of earthworms, and how the grant and partnership with their STEM partner has positively impacted their school.

When submitting our application for a Partnership Grant we had no idea of what lay ahead: navigating around the challenges of COVID-19 our school has been on an incredible journey. The experiences the children have had will help shape their lives for ever. Our project has involved every member of our school – teachers, parents, teaching assistants (TA's) and not least the children, from our youngest to our oldest.

The launch of our project was unique as we refused to allow lockdown to keep hampering our plans. We launched with a ‘Live From The Lab’ zoom hosted by our STEM partner, Dr Kevin Butt, and joined by children and parents – both in school and at home. Our whole community was buzzing. Who would have known the humble worm could generate such excitement? Excitement that even captured the imagination of the local press who visited the school to report on events.

We started simply learning about earthworm husbandry and quickly discovering that actually there was not one type of worm but many different species in the UK alone. The worms we kept in our wormeries were not earthworms at all but composting worms – the tiger worm. Many children cite the tiger worm as their favourite species of worm. We quickly learnt that not all foods were good to add to our wormeries, rotting cabbage is definitely not to be recommended, and surprisingly that worms like a damp environment. Y1 had the healthiest wormery, we think because it was in the warmest place, and was the only one where egg cocoons were found.

As well as husbandry, the children were keen to get involved in a ‘worm hunt’ to see what species could be found in our local area. Worms were bought in from home and Dr Butt joined us for a worm identification session. At this session we also learnt how to judge if a worm was an adult or a juvenile. Our initial worm hunt in the school grounds using spades and a lot of hard work was quite unproductive and we found only one worm, though this success was met with loud cheers from the Y6 children! The subsequent ‘hunts’ as they affectionately were known were much more productive as Kevin joined us to explain how to carry out our investigations scientifically. From random digging, we progressed to marking out several 1metre squares and pouring a mixture of mustard powder and water over the area. Within a few minutes, to the delight of the watching children, worms were wriggling to the surface. Kevin explained that the mustard irritated the skin of the worms, causing them to come to the surface and that it was important to remove the residue from the worms; making it important that they were carefully picked up and popped into a waiting tub of water before being counted, weighed and identified. This whole experience was captured by the BBC who spent the day with our Y1s, an opportunity that would not have been possible without the Royal Society. 

Our first year was spent building our knowledge of worms, the second year we dived into our planned investigation: ‘Investigations into growth and reproduction of soil dwelling worms with deciduous tree leaves', 'Preference testing experiments of soil dwelling worms with tree leaves’. Each class was given a question by Kevin to investigate. Our younger children hatched cocoons, observing the development of the young worm (who would have predicted that a newly hatched worm looks like a small piece of pink thread!).

The investigations were where we hit our first challenges and disappointment! For a variety of reasons the investigations were not a success, however Kevin stepped in and explained that this is all part of the scientific process and that we needed to look on it as a learning opportunity; what went wrong, how can we improve our investigation, what would we do next? Much encouraged the children tried again and were much more successful. This time individual responsibility was given to each pair of children for a tub containing two worms. All children set up their part of the investigation, weighed their worms at the start and end of the investigation and looked after them for the length of the observation ensuring they kept to the conditions of the investigation. Disappointingly no cocoons were found but we did discover that worms had a definite preference for birch leaves and that growth was also much better with this type of leaf.

During the first year of this project we were invited to join the Tomorrow's climate scientists programme. Seven of our Y6 children got involved and worked hard to capture the initial stages of our project for a short film which was used at a Royal Society presentation and featured on their website. Seven of our Y5 pupils have risen to the challenge and are determined to continue being a ‘champion’ for the worm and ensure that their knowledge is passed on to younger pupils once this project has formally ended.

The opportunities provided for our pupils have been amazing, from presenting at COP 26 to taking part in an online conference where they were able to present to eminent scientists. In the words of one of the children ‘This was a once in a lifetime experience and I am so proud to have done this and represented our school'. Again, none of this would have been possible without the Royal Society.

The project has exceeded all our expectations and hopes for what we could achieve, however the one thing that has had the biggest impact on our children and the success of the project is the involvement of our research STEM partner, Dr Kevin Butt. He has been truly amazing. He has given so much of his time and enthused everyone, children and adults alike, without him we would not have had achieved what we have. 

PS There is still so much more to learn about the ways in which ‘earthworms are so important to our world’! We have only scratched the surface.