One of the achievements I was most proud of during my time as director of the Liggins Institute was the establishment of LENScience, which is the acronym for the Liggins Educational Network for Science (LENScience). It is one of a number of experimental approaches that institutes and universities are using to build closer relationships with high school students. The LENScience model has attracted a lot of international attention – it is being replicated, with the assistance of Jacquie Bay, who directs LENScience, in several places including at Imperial College London under the direction of Professor Lord Robert Winston. There are several components, of which the largest involves school students spending time in a special classroom/laboratory at the Liggins Institute. Another part of the programme seeks to connect science students in low decile schools with a scientific mentor to undertake projects.
Some of these projects can be most impressive. Jacquie has just sent me a copy of a poster by Alvina Pau’uvale who has just been recognised as Dux of Tamaki College. It is entitled Kauri Killer on the Loose? and is a study of how the water mould, a kind of fungus, is being spread through the Waitakere Ranges to the west of Auckland and leads to the death of young kauri trees. Alvina studied the effectiveness of boot wash grates on the tracks and whether or not changes needed to be made to the current disease containment approaches. She undertook both field and laboratory work with the assistance of a Landcare scientist and staff from the Auckland Council and the Liggins Institute. Her work showed that the fungus is viable in the wash stations for a long time and that different disinfectant approaches are needed. As a result of her research, policy changes around track opening in the Waitakeres in the wet season have been made. Congratulations to Alvina and thanks to Stan Bellgard of Landcare Research and the LENScience team.
Every year I see stories like this about school students actually undertaking projects that make a real difference. School science need not be boring, nor should we overlook that our bright young people have something important to offer. We need to recognise that innovative thinking and scientific thinking can be applied from the very beginning of a scientific career and that such a career can start at school. How many more young people would take up a life-long interest in science if scientists engaged with them? Our science system needs to recognise how important these early interactions can be, not just for the individuals involved but for all of us.