By Adam Kucharski and Clare Wenham. Conducting scientific research is a hugely rewarding experience, but one that is rarely accessible outside universities. In public health, the public are a vital part of research, but all too often they are subjects – rather than drivers – of scientific projects. During 2014–15, we carried out a public engagement project, funded by a Wellcome Trust People Award, which aimed to bridge this gap between research and the public. Rather than just informing school pupils about our work, we wanted to help them design and carry out their own research project into social mixing patterns.
For many infectious diseases, school pupils play an important role in transmission, and it is therefore crucial to measure their social mixing behaviour to understand how epidemics might spread. However, it is extremely challenging to collect accurate information about such mixing due to the practical and ethical complexities of conducting research in schools. Although children’s social networks are likely to change over time as friendships evolve over time, most studies to date have only captured a single snapshot of a network on a particular day.
Through a series of video conferences and school visits, we worked alongside school pupils to develop and conduct a research project into the changing dynamics of social networks in their schools over several months. This was in collaboration with Dr Andrew Conlan at University of Cambridge, and the Millennium Maths Project. The length of project meant students could experience the full research cycle, from initial design to pilot study to analysis of results. The freedom to ask questions and analyse results was a contrast to their usual maths and statistics problems, where problems generally have a predetermined answer. By debating ethical issues and data protection, students also learned about some of the important (and sometimes contentious) issues involved in modern science. We have since collected many of topics we covered into a set of school teaching resources, complete with activities and curriculum links.
Because students were leading the data collection during the project, it was possible to carry out multiple surveys in multiple locations. What’s more, students knew the best way to do this in their respective schools. In total, we ended up with almost 1,300 social contact surveys over four months – a feat that would have been impossible without close collaboration with schools. These results should provide some valuable insights into how school social networks change over time, and what it might mean for our understanding of disease outbreaks and control measures.
There were some challenges encountered during the project, of course. We wanted students to have the freedom to design surveys and to test different methods, but we also needed to ensure consistency between schools and time periods, so that results could be analysed fairly. It is also took longer to ensure the project met the London School’s ethical guidelines, because school students were designing the survey, rather than us setting the questions in advice. Then there were a number of practical issues, including ensuring consent forms had been obtained from parents; scheduling multiple video conferences; and making sure the schools had time to collect and analyse their results.
Despite these challenges, the project brought many benefits – both to the pupils and the research team. As well as giving school students a chance to experience the scientific process, it made us consider how our own work affects the public. Throughout the project, students asked questions about the assumptions and implications of the research, plus broader queries (“Why is it called chickenpox?”) that we’d never even considered. This inquisitiveness shaped the main project and the accompanying resources, and demonstrated the value of engaging with the public when it comes to carrying out scientific research.
Image: These networks show reported mutual contact between male and female pupils involved in the project over three consecutive months. Credit: Adam Kucharski.
Contact to find out more or check out our website at www.lshtm.ac.uk/publicengagement