The awesomeness of student researchers (or something like that)

One of the joyful aspects of working in academia is the prospect of having a fresh start every teaching year and the cycle of reflection and potential for improvement that comes with this. As such, autumn is always a time for me to reflect on my achievements and plan where to go next with my work. I am a super harsh self-critic, but I have a pretty good understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. For me, this is an offshoot of my mental health problems. Depression, anxiety and a good dose of neurodiverse thinking mean that I spend a lot of time in my head mulling over my place in the world.

I had my annual work review this week for the first time in a few years and as preparation I read over my achievements from previous reviews, albeit all before COVID. There is something that stands out to me (and likely no-one else) in this record of my achievements. And that is that my most successful academic projects, the ones that have been the most innovative, the ones that I have enjoyed the most and persevered to see their potential being realised, have been in collaboration with our own university students.

My most productive years were the ones where I was awarded students as researchers as part of a university wide research informed teaching scheme. Undergraduates had to apply for roles and were screened and interviewed prior to being employed for 60 hours of research work. I was lucky enough to be allocated five such placements over the years and each time, these students had a positive impact on the direction of my career. I have read many research studies waxing lyrical about the benefit of these projects to students and to the research informed teaching curriculum. But what about the benefit to staff? And what was it that made these placements so beneficial?

Perhaps it was the nature of the projects themselves that were so enjoyable. All of these placements were working on new projects that needed nurture and enthusiasm, ideas and action. And thanks to the fresh, enthusiastic approach of student researchers, they turned into amazingly feasible projects. My favourite part of the process is taking crazy ideas and turning them into a tangible, working project. Does this count as bona fide academic research? Probably not. Does it have outcome and impact? It certainly does. But most importantly, it is an accessible way of generating ideas and innovation in science without the gatekeeping that comes with larger research projects. And honestly, that’s my favourite place in the world, so its where I plan to stay.

Some of my past student as researcher projects that have been far too enjoyable to be considered work (nb it was still work):

Minecraft as a learning tool in science:

Over the years I have had many students working on this project for me. A bona fide reason to have Minecraft on my desktop at work? Yes please! These projects saw students build:

  • an in-game Minecraft ecology field trip for first year undergraduates as a prep tool prior to a real field trip. I presented this work at the Advance HE STEM conference in 2019 (STEM conference 2019: Using Minecraft in HE as a virtual field trip: One academic’s journey | Advance HE ( NB I delivered this presentation in memes…. it was super cool)
  • a gamified biorefinery that demonstrated the circular economy to KS2 / KS3 aged kids
  • a MakeCode program that could be deployed in Minecraft and used scoreboard mechanics to keep tabs on your sustainability in the game, such as using non-renewable materials to build and destroying biodiversity.
  • Here is an in-game snap of one of our field trips:

Campus Biodiversity:

  • My AMAZING student for this project worked over two placements to design and deploy the Teesside University Campus Bird Count. We had volunteers walk a transect around campus and submit data to study the impact of activity on our birdy friends. We also made bee and bird sheets for general use to highlight the extensive biodiversity we have on campus, and its importance in maintaining a green highway through Middlesbrough.

SciArt in Biosciences:

  • The student worked with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art to investigate the crossover between science and art. This included a number of public engagement events at mima, ran with science students as volunteers, that aimed at engaging families with biodiversity monitoring in Middlesbrough town centre. And it involved knitting of course – we had knitted birds at the mima events:

I feel incredibly lucky to have been gifted with these amazing students and projects. Fingers crossed I might get to work on more of these placements in the future😊.

Any ideas for contributions to the above projects, and science knitting / crochet, are always welcomed!

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