UK primary school children in groundbreaking scientific publication

22 December 2010

A group of UK primary school children have achieved a world first by having their school science project accepted for publication in an internationally recognised peer-reviewed Royal Society journal.  The paper, which reports novel findings in how bumblebees perceive colour, is published in Biology Letters today (22 December 2010). 

The research was undertaken by 8-10 year old pupils at Blackawton School in Devon, who investigated the way that bumblebees see colours and patterns.  The young scientists found evidence that bees are able to learn and remember cues based on colour and pattern in a spatially complex scene.   The field of insect colour and pattern vision is generally poorly understood and the findings reported by the school children represent a genuine advance in the field.
“I’m delighted that this work is going to be published in Biology Letters,” said Dave Strudwick, Head of Blackawton School.  “Our pupils devised, conducted and wrote up an experiment which resulted in genuinely novel findings, so they deserve to be published.  But even more importantly, they had the chance to work with an actual scientist and become one themselves – not just watching the scientist at work but actually participating in and creating the whole scientific process.  Science shouldn’t be seen as something that is detached from the real world – it’s just a certain way of looking at things.  This project represents a completely different way of working and learning that I hope will be taken up by other schools and in other subjects.
Professor Brian Charlesworth FRS, Editor of Biology Letters said: “This paper represents a world first in high quality scientific publishing and I’m proud that Biology Letters is supporting this highly innovative approach to science education.  This is a unique way of encouraging children's engagement with science by getting a group to write about their work in a publishable format.  I hope that it will inspire other groups to realise that science is not an exclusive club but something that’s available for everybody.”
The project was coordinated and funded by Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist based at UCL’s Institute of Opthalmology and Head of Lottolab Studio, an innovative research space which creates installations, musical performances and educational programmes, and performs carefully controlled experiments on perception and behaviour.  Beau is currently developing a ‘living lab’ at London’s Science Museum, funded by the Wellcome Trust, which enables the public, including school children, to participate, design and run real science experiments on site. 

Dr Lotto said “The publication of a scientific paper entirely conceived and written by schoolchildren shows what’s possible if we celebrate uncertainty.  Real scientific work is full of uncertainty – that’s why it’s so exciting – but I find that this is what’s lacking in education, where subjects are too often presented as a series of dull factual certainties.  The publication of this work is an important step in showing what we can achieve if we’re prepared to approach science in a way that’s creative, daring and, above all, fun.”
As with all papers accepted for publication in Biology Letters, the paper successfully went through peer review.  The presentation of the paper is unconventional because the paper contains no references due to the inaccessibility of the existing scientific literature to 8-10 year olds.  However, it has been published alongside a commentary by Laurence T. Maloney of New York University’s Center for Neural Science and Natalie Hempel de Ibarra of Exeter University’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour.
In their commentary, which is fully referenced and provides background to the research, Hempel and Maloney write: “The experiments are modest in scope but cleverly and correctly designed and carried out with proper controls to avoid possible artefacts.  They lack statistical analyses and any discussion of previous experimental work, but they hold their own among experiments carried out by highly-trained specialists.  The experimenters have asked a scientific question and answered it well.”
The Royal Society offers funding for schools to get involved in exciting projects in collaboration with scientists or engineers.