Are citizens—students and pupils in particular—engaged in current research? Not really. There is still a huge gap between the latest research carried out by the scientific community and society—including the education community. In parallel, Europe faces a decrease in the interest of pupils in science subjects and a decline in the number of students aiming for scientific careers. Worse, many young people express negative attitudes towards science, in the way it is currently taught in schools.
Many of those involved in the public involvement in science are currently reflecting on how to break the kind of ‘membrane’ that still keeps the scientific community sheltered from the lay public and from young people’s education, in particular. New trends of public engagement, such as citizen science projects or community engagement projects, are starting to emerge, for example.
In these projects citizens are no longer only informed or consulted, but they become collaborators. In some projects, citizens even become part of the research team right from the beginning, at the stage of research agenda setting, project design and during the operational and communication phases of the project. This is what the European Commission dubbed Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).
One of the projects designed to contribute to bridge the gap between research and society by engaging young people in education with the scientific community is Xplore Health. It is a European educational portal with participative multimedia resources developed in collaboration with scientists and teachers from all over Europe. It has been designed to entice young people to learn about current health research through innovative pedagogical approaches.
Specifically, the portal offers videos on current research, virtual experiments where citizens can perform simulated research online. For example, they can try and discover a vaccine candidate against HIV. They can also engage in so-called serious games—designed for educational purposes rather than pure entertainment—in formats such as a race against time to develop a new drug.
The portal also offers hands-on resources for teachers such as worksheets providing hints on how to use the multimedia tools. These lesson plans follow an inquiry-based teaching method (IBSE), where students self-direct their learning process related to current research. Students are not expected to reproduce what they have been told in the class. Instead, they need to take the initiative, for example, in collecting new data, validating existing data, checking prior knowledge, before they can fulfil their tasks.
The programme also includes card games and videos to raise the debate around ethical, legal and social aspects (ELSA) of current research. For example there are card games named Discussion Continuums where players initiate a debate and reach a consensus with other players on where to place statement cards, in between two extreme cards, one labelled ‘I agree’ and one ‘I disagree’ placed at either end of a table.
The project also offers an outreach programme whereby pupils have an opportunity to interact with scientists. What is more, there are hands-on activities run in museums, research centres and schools, whereby students perform experiments in the context of current research. These activities are taking place through workshops organised, in the case of Spain for example, at science museums such as Domus in A Coruña, the Barcelona Science Park and the CosmoCaixa in Barcelona, and in some other cities in Spain thanks to a mobile open lab.
In addition to the workshops of experiments stemming from current research projects, the programme provides courses for teachers which facilitate an update on the latest on health research. Besides, they provide hints on how to work on research topics in the classroom with an IBSE approach. The teachers are also invited to join an online platform where a growing network of teachers working with Xplore Health exchange best practices and meet on a regular basis with scientists from different areas.
Thus, by engaging young Europeans in looking for solutions and debating around current social problems linked to emerging technologies, the hope is that the project will contribute to reverse the current trend of disaffection towards science.
This is a crucial issue for the future of Europe.
Director of Xplore Health
Head of the Unit of Public Engagement, at the Institute for Aids Research IrsiCaixa
Photo credit: Foundation la Caixa
Photo legend: Workshop of Xplore Health experiments carried out in CosmoCaixa.