4. Working with students and researchers


4. Working with students and researchers

Working with students and researchers?

Requests usually don’t match one on one with research proposals. It is important to have a good “articulation phase”, in which you try to map the real issue for your client, and identify context and possible stakeholders. Also check what information your partner has or can make available. You can then do some preliminary research in scientific journals, the internet or newspaper databases to find a direction towards answering the request. 

The next step is to find the required disciplines. E.g. environmental issues can have a chemical part, but also a health, legal, social, or economic part. If your institute can supply research capacity in this discipline, you can make a research proposal; if not, it may be better to refer the question to another Science Shop or research institute through the national or international network.

You can split up the research work in smaller parts; e.g. a student in chemistry describes the contents of some cosmetic products and a student in medical sciences reviews literature on toxicology and epidemiology. After their research, a student in communication studies can make a brochure.

You can also make the project larger, since if e.g. a theoretical component is missing, it is not suitable for a master thesis. The Chemistry Shop Groningen was asked for a risk assessment of a large windmill park next to chemical storage site and transportation route, which meant a lot of calculation work but no methodological development. In discussion with the research group supervising the student, the project was enlarged with a comparison between this risk and the risk of an equally large gas-fired electricity plant. Comparing local and global (CO2) risks was seen as more complicated and scientific. The student worked for 3 months on the case and for three months on the theory. The client was happy with the case results, and the research group with the total package. For the student, it was a complete learning experience.

The Interacts report gives some examples from an environmental, health and social science project on how the research question was developed.

How can we involve students in our projects?

Students can do the project as part of their curriculum (credit points), work for you as paid assistant, or voluntary.

Projects can be part of an existing course or practical period (the teacher of that course or practical period will have to agree that the students work on a real life case). Projects can also be done as a BSc/BA, MSc/MA or PhD thesis. The supervisor has to agree.
In some cases, project work can be done as an “optional course” for a number of credits. This depends on the structure of the curriculum. See EnRRICH for details.

Paid work:
In some cases, students can get a job as assistant quite easily; in general this may be cheaper than a professional researcher, but the main advantage is that they can be hired for short and/or part-time periods. If you are not part of university, you may be able to hire students as interns and pay a small intern-reimbursement to them.

This works only in some cases. In general, students nowadays have to finish their studies in a limited time and moreover they need a side-job to make a living. Sometimes, recently graduated or temporarily unemployed ex-students do want a job as volunteer, to maintain their working experience. Also early retired professionals may be willing to work a few days a week as volunteer.
Note that service learning (community-based learning) programmes, such as those in US universities, are now entering the curricula in the UK and may also develop in the rest of Europe. Students can volunteer as part of the curriculum and could conduct small scale research projects as part of their internship.

What are the contributions to student competencies?

From Science Shop projects, students gain various competencies that are not easily obtained otherwise.

  • Social competences: Awareness of the role of science in society, political/policy awareness, communication skills (including communication to non-scientists).
  • Scientific competences: Project definition, work planning, working in a transdisciplinary setting, and various new knowledge about certain topics.
  • In general, a Science Shop project is an experience in problem-based learning and adds to a problem-solving attitude with students.

How can Science Shops get professors or researchers to supervise their projects?

For a professor, supervising a project may be a part of his/her teaching obligation (they have to supervise writing master’s thesis’s anyway). The Science Shop can make it interesting for professors or resaaerchers by showing how it fits in their research programme, and by the fact that they will have access to data supplied by the client (if applicable), or by showing that it is a nice case which is “hot” in public attention. The Science Shop can make it easy for them by co-supervising the project and taking care for the project process (taking some of the workload), or even by doing part of the editorial work on the student’s report themselves as a Science Shop coordinator. Of course, an own budget is an extra argument to get them involved.