Between 2007-9, the Millennium Mathematics Project's Motivate programme collaborated with the Disease Dynamics group at the University of Cambridge on an innovative project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, to combine educational outreach with active mathematical research.

The project offered school teachers and pupils, via Motivate's maths and science enrichment programme, the opportunity to develop and carry out their own research project gathering information on how primary school-age children – often the most likely age-group to experience an epidemic – interact. The information gathered by participating schools was used as a novel and exciting dataset by University of Cambridge Disease Dynamics research team.

Through a combination of live interactive video-conferencing and school visits, secondary school students took part in workshops with the university researchers exploring a range of issues including the importance of understanding disease spread; the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination; the ethics and practicality of data collection; and analysis of datasets. Secondary school maths and science classes were also involved in collaborative project tasks and practical fieldwork developing and implementing a questionnaire to determine mixing patterns in primary schools.

The scientific background of this project was rooted in mathematical epidemiology: mathematical methods aimed at understanding and predicting the spread of epidemics. One of the most important determinants of epidemic spread through human populations is the mixing behaviour of people: the number of social contacts and the setting and duration of these interactions. Many infectious diseases have a significant impact amongst children, particularly those of primary school age; the large numbers of immunologically naïve individuals in close proximity makes the primary school setting a favourable one for disease transmission.

The university researchers wanted to learn more about the social mixing patterns of primary school children in order to help to understand infection within the population. Little, if any, detailed quantitative information was available about the behavioural patterns of this vital population group; one outcome of this project was to provide data. The project thus provided the schools involved with the opportunity of carrying out important front-line science.

The project also resulted in a schools' pack on Disease Dynamics, giving explanatory background resources on epidemiology and ideas for classroom activities and project work, available free on the Motivate website.

Read the academic paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, or read more about the project in Discover magazine's blog article 'Turning secondary school children into research scientists'.