The aim of Smarter was to stimulate dialogue about the social and ethical issues surrounding the use of cognitive enhancing medication, amongst KS3-KS4 pupils in England and S1-S4 pupils in Scotland. It provided the opportunity for young people to explore their own values and opinions about the controversial issue of brain enhancement.
Summary of activity:
We developed the Smarter session format inspired by previous work we had been involved with including our “Meet the Gene Machine” project which used a similar approach, and Science Horizons.
Sessions took the form of a short drama starring two advertising executives and performed by the presenters which succinctly introduced all the issues. This was followed by a facilitated whole-class discussion. Sessions concluded with an advertising exercise where students had to present a campaign either in favour or against using drugs for cognitive enhancement.
To develop the script for the drama, we worked with Toby Hulse, a playwright who specialises in educational theatre projects with young people. Early drafts were produced in collaboration with a group of students. Toby then revised these into the final script.
The discussion section was run in a “Vote with Your Feet” format. The room was marked out with a voting continuum with “yes” and “no” positions at each end and “not sure” in the middle.
Students were asked questions such as “If there were pills that could make you smarter, would you take them?” and “Is taking medication to enhance your brain power and memory, any different to drinking coffee or red bull, taking vitamins or going for a run?” asked to stand in the position on the continuum that matched their opinion. As the discussion developed, they were encouraged to reposition themselves if their opinion changed.
Sessions were delivered in 10 schools in and around Bristol and Glasgow. Scottish sessions were delivered by Glasgow Science Centre. Bristol sessions were delivered by Explorer Dome.
In total, 200 students, 8 teachers and one neuroscientist were involved in project delivery in schools.
We also produced a teacher-pack of follow-up activities.
We evaluated the project internally using formal observations, before and after questionnaires, informal interviews with students, presenter diaries and follow-up telephone interviews with teachers.
The full evaluation report is from the project page of our website:
What went well:
1.Students enjoyed the sessions: - A vast majority (89%) of participants stated that they had enjoyed the lesson, with 10% of the remainder neither agreeing or disagreeing and only 1% having found it uninteresting.
2. Students enjoyed the sessions more than usual debates in class: - 70% of students said that they enjoyed debates in class. When compared to the 89% of students that enjoyed the session, this implies that at least 19% of participants found the session more engaging than the usual debates they conduct in class.
3. Participating teachers were enthusiastic about Smarter's place within the school curriculum, as it provided much needed support in exploring societal impacts. The Scottish contingent were particularly enthusiastic about its fit to the new Sottish Curriculum for Excellence.
What was learned:
From our evaluation, we made the following recommendations for future iterations of the project:
• Future dissemination of the project should be targeted at year 9 and above (and Scottish equivalent).
• A practising neuroscientist should the sessions in an ‘expert role’ as opposed to that of performer/facilitator.
• Further development of the session should include a factual segment about brain science, memory and cognitive enhancement.
• Performers and facilitators may benefit from additional training to further hone their performance skills.
• Further dissemination of the sessions should maintain the current format of distinct sections with activities offering different levels of participation i.e. a drama, a class debating activity, a group activity etc.
• The work space provided should ideally be an open space, such as a drama room or music hall, rather than a laboratory with fixed benches.
• Additional classroom resources provided for teachers should be flexible, adaptable and simple. They should be provided on disk or downloadable but should not be too high spec or interactive.
Top tips and advice for others
This project was funded through a Wellcome Trust People Award. Our scaled-up proposal “Smarter UK” was awarded a Society Award in 2011. Smarter UK was delivered in five regions to over 7,000 school students. We took forward our recommendations from the pilot for the UK version including involving a neuroscience researcher in every session and restricting availability to year 9 and above.