As a BBSRC funded researcher, a portion of my time has to be invested in the public understanding of science. Since I have successfully grown plants on my own allotment for over 10 years, I thought that growing plants, harvesting crops, and trying different methods is not only an interesting learning experience for our young pupils but also offers excitement and plenty of healthy exercise. I thus decided in spring 2005 to ask the city of York Council if I could have a second allotment for educational purposes. The Council agreed and Heworth C.E. Primary School provided plenty of enthusiastic pupils who couldn’t wait to get their hands into the dirt.
1) Scientific aims of the project
One of the key-elements in experimental science is to create a setup in which all variables are kept constant so that the influence of one specific parameter can be tested. This sounds trivial, but even experienced researchers get this wrong from time to time. I once reviewed a manuscript submitted to a renowned scientific journal in which “drought resistant” mutant plants were analysed. The researchers tested drought resistance simply by stopping to water the plants that were grown in individual pots. As the soil progressively desiccated, the normal variety died, whilst the mutant survived at the same moment in time. However, the mutants were also smaller plants with a smaller leaf surface and a less established root system. The authors did not measure the soil humidity in the pots with normal plants and in those of the mutant plants, so they couldn’t guarantee that the two groups of plants were growing in the same conditions. There was no evidence that the soil humidity (or lack of it) was identical in the two cases, so they couldn’t conclude anything really. I asked if the authors had considered that the mutant plants simply didn’t use up the water as quickly as the normal variety because they were smaller. This is a typical example of an experiment that was fundamentally flawed, and the manuscript was rejected. The same problem applies to “causes” and “consequences” in correlative non-experimental science. I once evaluated the results of a study that tested the influence of ”Science clubs” on the performance in SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) tests. The study showed that schools sporting a “Science-club” indeed could take pride in better pupil performance during SATS tests. However, it was remarkable that the Science club apparently affected not only results in Science tests, but also English literacy, Physical education, and Religion. Even more astonishingly, the science club affected all the children in the school, ranging from 500-1000 pupils, even though the science club only held 5-10 members. So did the science club have such an inspirational effect on everything, or could it be that a good school has simply a higher probability to find a few dedicated students to found a science club? If professional scientists have problems with these basic concepts, it is clear that it cannot do any harm to introduce basic scientific thinking in Primary schools.
2) Improving awareness of the value of food
One of the biggest changes in our society during the last 150 years is that we no longer have 90% of our population working the field. Thanks to the industrial revolution and cheap fossil energy, machines prepare the land, turn and fertilise the soil, and harvest and distribute the crops. Only a small percentage of our population is involved in food production and retains knowledge about growing crops, which leaves us very fragile in crisis situations. Young children (and many adults) have often no idea how difficult it is to grow food rather than weeds. And most adults have no idea that plants do not take up “organic” compounds, but that roots transport only water and minerals, and that there is intrinsically nothing wrong with mineral fertilisers, as long as they are used sensibly. Having first-hand experience with real crops on an allotment, pupils can see how well weeds survive our best efforts to remove them, and how poorly our domesticated crop plants perform if left to their own fate.
3) First experiences with the project
Already during the first session with year 6 pupils, I was impressed with their ability to critically assess experiments. When comparing a row of potatoes grown with and without a polythene tunnel, they came up with plenty of variables that had to be considered. One pupil correctly spotted that the plants in the tunnel won’t get the same amount of rain as the plants without the tunnel. Another pupil argued that there might be less light and less wind in the tunnel and that there might also be differences in the soil that we are currently unaware of, and that the last problem could be overcome by repeating the experiment (with or without tunnel) many times at different places on the allotment. Finally, one pupil approached me and said he had a solution regarding the differences in rain water, and suggested we should install a gutter around the tunnel, collect the water and use a sprinkler system inside the tunnel to compensate for the lack of rain. He also suggested that we could mount ventilators in the tunnel, but regretfully, he could not think of a way to make sure the fans would make exactly the same amount of wind as experienced by the plants in the row without the tunnel. Great thinking for an 11-year old! )