When you think of scientific researchers actively investigating how diseases may spread, you probably wouldn't imagine they could still be in the classroom. But we're delighted to have been part of a project giving Year 9 maths students the opportunity to conduct real scientific research in their schools, alongside a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Cambridge.
Understanding social behaviour is an increasingly important part of biomedical science, for example in understanding and predicting the spread of epidemics, and research suggests that the movements and interactions of school-age children may play an important part in the spread of infectious disease. Yet there is still a lack of research data available about how school pupils interact. What do social networks in schools look like, and how do they change over time? This research and public engagement project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, brought epidemiologists together with school students to gather information on social behaviour in four UK schools over the course of the 2014/15 school year.
The research team, from the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Cambridge, worked with the Millennium Mathematics Project to recruit four partner schools: Highgate School, London; St Bonaventure's Catholic Comprehensive School, Newham; St Paul's Catholic College, Sussex; and The Lakes School in Cumbria. Year 9 students at all four schools, with the support of the research team, conducted surveys at four or five points over the school year to gather information on contact patterns among Year 7 pupils at different points in the school year, and whether they had recently had a cold or flu. For more information on the project design, and the mathematical analysis of the contact networks, see this article about the project on Plus, our free online mathematics magazine.
The research team will now analyse the data in more detail and publish their results, to feed into work by the wider scientific community. Meanwhile, the Wellcome-funded project also supported the creation of teaching resources for schools exploring the maths of epidemics, developed by the research team and published on our NRICH website. Teachers can find the free resources, which are aimed at Years 8 - 10 (ages 12-15), at nrich.maths.org/epidemic.