Dr Paul Nicholson presents 'Super model fights famine' project

20 May 2014

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On the 1st May Dr Paul Nicholson (BSPP Treasurer) presented the 'Super model fights famine' project at the science communication conference at the University of Surrey, Guildford.

The conference was a two-day event, which brought together over 400 people from science centres and festivals, research councils, Universities and learned societies across the UK. It was an excellent opportunity to share ideas and promote outreach projects.

One of the sessions was entitled 'Schools and scientists: Doing research together'. This year Dr Paul Nicholson and Sarah Calne (a science teacher from Wymondham High Academy in Norfolk) were invited to present their project: 'Super model fights famine' to share what they had learnt from the project's outcomes and challenges.

What is the 'Super model fights famine' project?

The 'Super model fights famine' project ran in 2013 and was part-funded by the BSPP. It involved sixth form students in Norfolk helping researchers at the John Innes Centre discover insights into plant resistance to Take-all fungus: the cause of a major wheat disease.

Brachypodium is a model species used in plant research. Students were given Brachypodium seeds and learnt plant husbandry techniques to successfully grow seedings in the classroom. When the plants had grown, the students infected the roots with fungus and recorded and compared the amount of root blackening on 200 different Brachypodium lines to search for resistance to the Take-all fungus.

Students then examined their data sets and compared them with data from other participating schools to cross-reference all the results. Their findings are part of a study to help plant breeders develop new wheat varieties with greater resistance to Take-all disease.

The project was an exciting opportunity for students to do real science and make contributions to advancing scientific knowledge of food security. Students learnt about plant biology, pathology, microbiology and statistics and crucially the unpredictability of how science works.

The aim was also to: 'introduce students to the excitement of scientific discovery and to inspire them to consider plant science as a degree choice' said Dr Paul Nicholson.

Katie Tomlinson (BSPP Outreach Officer) helped to facilitate a discussion at the conference on how similar school science projects can work:

'There was consensus that plant science projects can be a really valuable tool for teaching scientific techniques. Delegates recognised that plant science is an important area of science to promote in schools. They agreed that students should have the opportunity to do real science before they get to University and that this can help inspire students to pursue science.' 

Although there are big challenges, the potential gains of getting school students doing real science makes these projects a worthwhile investment.

In future, Paul Nicholson and Sarah Calne are hoping to run the project again, and are currently looking into funding options, so watch this space…