Start competition lets pupils create clinical trials

Students offer ideas for a contest for primary schools run by HRB-TMRN

Can listening to music at lunch time help to reduce stress at exam time? Does doing 20 jumping jacks every day at school result in increased fitness? Does 10 minutes of dancing every morning before classes improve students’ levels of attention?

Intuitively, it seems like the answers should be yes, but where’s the evidence? The Start Competition wants primary school students to come up with interesting questions and interventions, and then put them to the test.

It's a bid to help young students to understand the process of clinical trials, explains Dr Sandra Galvin, co-ordinator of the Health Research Board Trials Methodology Research Network, which is running the initiative.

“A clinical trial is also known as a fair test of treatments – it is a process by which we can say for certain which treatment is better than another and it is used to assess new medicines, medical devices, diets and exercise programmes,” she explains.


“The competition is a way in which we want to teach young children about the importance of clinical research, and get them to understand what a clinical trial is and the processes that are involved. A clinical trial is about following a very specific protocol to get a final result, and that result can help to improve healthcare, not just in Ireland but globally.”

Primary school students are not expected to devise and run a full clinical trial, but by asking questions and gathering the evidence, they get to think about experimental design and how to select groups of people who will undertake the intervention and others who will not – the "controls". Shortlisted entrants will go to an event at NUI Galway on International Clinical Trials Day on May 20th.

Proposed questions to get students and teachers thinking include: Does doing 20 jumping jacks every day at school result in increased fitness? Can using coloured paper for written spelling tests increase students' scores? Can healthy eating posters improve the quality of school lunches? explains Start ambassador Dr Marina Zaki, a PhD student in clinical trial methodology with the HRB-TMRN, who is based at University College Dublin.

“The questions are worthy of research and at the same time, applicable to the daily lives of school kids,” she says. “And some of the questions the teachers have [come] back to us with include ‘Does playing sport improve your mood?’ and others aiming to tell the difference between store-bought and homemade foods.”

Zaki sees the competition as a way to get children thinking about where medicines come from, the stages of a scientific experiment or test, and how to factor in different people as a team to reach a conclusion. “I feel if they understand the processes of science and health research from a young age, this helps to develop their thinking to ask questions such as why, who, what and where, and not just accept things as they may be,” she says.

Galvin hopes that planning and doing the short experiments will give the students an insight into the kinds of studies that underpin health interventions. “The next time the student takes a medication, they will perhaps know there were people taking part in a clinical trial,” she says. “Or the next time they go for an eye test they will think about how someone did a study on the type of glasses they are wearing to evaluate the effectiveness.”

A recent event at the UCD Conway Institute, called The Patient Voice in Cancer Research, highlighted a lack of awareness about clinical research and trials in Ireland. Could getting school students here to think about the processes of clinical trials help?

"There is no question that engaging children and encouraging them to think carefully about these types of issues is invaluable," says Eibhlin Mulroe, chief executive of the All-Ireland Co-operative Oncology Research Group (ICORG).

Last year, 2,329 patients were on ICORG cancer trials. Patients on these trials had early access to more than 25 new cancer drugs and treatments, according to the organisation.

“An important part of our current strategy is to be more patient-facing and tell more people about the benefits these trials have delivered and can deliver in the years ahead,” says Mulroe. “The more we can make people aware of what cancer trials involve, the rigorous standards that apply and the huge benefits they can deliver such as providing early access to potentially groundbreaking treatments, the more likely they will be to come forward and get involved.”

Dr Robert O'Connor, head of research at the Irish Cancer Society, says the competition is tapping into children's curiosity and he emphasises the importance of clinical trials. "The benefit is that they help to find solutions to our health problems, whether that is through a new drug, treatment, approach, combination or way of doing things," he says. "And in general they motivate both patients and healthcare staff because they are part of an ongoing health process. Health is dynamic, we are constantly learning and trying to improve things."

Deadline for entries is May 5th, 12pm. For more: