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School students deliver cutting edge research

A group of school students-turned-researchers has delivered new data that will help scientists stem the spread of infectious diseases. A study designed by the students reveals social contact patterns among primary schools students. This type of information is crucial in mathematical models of how diseases spread, which can be used to test the effects of interventions like vaccination and school closures. And since schools are hotbeds not just for social interaction, but also for viruses, they are of particular interest to epidemiologists. The study was based on specially designed questionnaires which were handed out to primary schools and achieved an unprecedented response rate of nearly 90%. The results have been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

A Motivate videoconference. On the desk are Jenny Gage (back), Ken Eames (middle) and Josh Ross (front). Adrian Cullum-Hanshaw (at the monitor) is Motivate's technical coordinator.

The students' work was a result of a programme run by Plus' sister project Motivate, which produces maths enrichment resources for schools. Part of Motivate's expertise lies in videoconferencing, providing schools from all around the world with the chance to link up with Cambridge mathematicians. For this particular project, Motivate academic coordinator Jenny Gage worked with the mathematicians Julia Gog, Ken Eames and Andrew Conlan. They hooked up with secondary school students aged 13 to 15 from UK schools.

In a series of videoconferences presented by the mathematicians just mentioned as well as Josh Ross, Johann von Kirchbach and Roberto Saenz, the students explored the mathematics used to model the spread of diseases and then designed a questionnaire to measure the social mixing patterns of primary school students. "The brief was to produce a questionnaire that could collect useful information and was sufficiently straightforward so that it could quickly be explained even to the youngest primary school children," the researchers say in their paper. The questionnaire focussed on two simple questions: "which pupils within your class do you spend the most time with?" and "which pupils in other classes do you spend the most time with?"

The secondary school students then went out to recruit local primary schools to take part in the project. Eleven primary schools took part, representing different areas and communities, from small towns in rural Wales to inner-city schools in London. The result was a total of 1685 completed questionnaires, representing an overall response rate of 89.2% — much higher than the rate that has been achieved by other school surveys.

The primary school students' answers to the survey reveal a strong pattern in the way they socialise. "The data describes contact networks which are strongly clustered and segregated between the genders, with the degree of cliquishness and gender segregation increasing with the age of respondents," says Conlan. In other words, children form close groups and as they get older, girls stick with girls and boys with boys. What's more, children predominantly mix with others from the same age group. "This pattern is of particular interest, as it quantifies for the first time the extent to which contacts within a year group compare to those between different year groups," says Conlan. "This information on age-related patterns of mixing is essential for the parameterisation (and interpretation) of epidemic models." The results may not be surprising, but they represent hard evidence that previously wasn't available.

Apart from gathering social contact data, the aim of the project was to engage school students with mathematics. And this part of the project was hailed a success too. "Overall we were terrifically impressed with the performance of the students who designed the questionnaires," says Conlan. "I think their first reaction to the project was quiet, and polite, bafflement at why we were so interested in gathering this sort of information! This slowly turned into increasing engagement and excitement as they began to collect their own data, build their own networks and start to think about how diseases might spread. Although most of the videoconferences and school visits were carried out in class time, many of the students also gave up their own time to process questionnaire forms."

Gog believes that the experience holds lessons for how maths could be taught more effectively to students who might not on the face of it be interested: "With one of the schools, where the students weren't particularly selected on academic ability to participate, we initially saw a small group dominating, being the ones to report back after activities. Meanwhile, we could see a group sitting on the desks at the back, only really half paying attention to start with. But as soon as the project got to the point where the schools were interacting with primary schools and collecting their own data, some of these kids really came alive, moved to the front to take over the microphone and report back for subsequent videoconferences. I think we saw that having an applied problem they could get their teeth into made things a whole lot more intriguing to them."

Teaching maths to school students in an engaging way was an important aim of the project, but as Conlan points out, there are wider issues at stake: "I think it's incredibly important for those of us working in research to foster and encourage the next generation of scientists. Research is a really different type of academic study to the experience of the average school student today. In the current era of spending cuts and rising fees for students, it's more important than ever to communicate what we do and encourage young people to consider careers in academia. Just as important is broadening the public understanding of the science underlying the major policy decisions that ultimately can impact on their lives."

Gog agrees: "Whatever these children grow up to be, and whatever they do, perhaps this project will leave them a bit more interested in scientific developments and debates of the future. Maybe they'll read science news stories with a bit more of an open mind but critical eye, and hopefully they'll have more insight into how science research works. Whether it's issues surrounding GM, climate change, the MMR scare, or any other big scientific issues of the day, as many people as possible should be involved in the debate. Hopefully we are part of helping to make the next generation more scientifically engaged. And hopefully we've also managed to show them that scientists are not all old men who look like Einstein and that even girls can be scientists!"

Further reading

The project has produced a schools pack, which is freely available to any school to use and has lots of resources on mathematical models of disease spread.

You can find out more about the mathematics of infectious diseases in our Do you know what's good for you? package, containing articles, podcasts, as well as a classroom activity to build your own disease.

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