It is of course undisputed that the existence and expansion of industry in the UK relies upon a continued supply of high quality engineers (to develop existing technologies) and scientists (to create new ones). So we should not then be surprised when the big industry players want to get involved in the education of our children and their potential future employees.
Both scientists and engineers ask questions about the world around them, propose ideas or solutions and then design practical experiments to test these ideas. These kinds of tests and trials which are encountered all the time both in industry and academia, do not however fit neatly into a school lesson, and are not designed to illustrate a piece of scientific knowledge that is already well understood.
So what sort of idea might a student have about being a scientist if their experiences were based solely on the standard science lesson practical? That if you follow the correct procedure you'll get the right result? That a different answer is wrong, as opposed to telling you something else, which is possibly more interesting? This outcome would be akin to producing a machine operative rather than someone who could fix or design the machine.
In 2009 L'Oréal and the Royal Institution established the L'Oréal Young Scientist Centre (LYSC) to give young people the freedom to experiment, in the true sense of the word, by giving students the time to work through certain areas and allowing them to learn from their mistakes. The programme unashamedly has an applied component, referring to practical lab problems rather than pure theory whenever possible. We have hands-on workshops that cover a whole range of scientific and technological disciplines but we are always on the lookout for more; unsurprisingly one of the best places to look for these is industry as they encounter engineering problems constantly.
For example, we designed a crash testing workshop in collaboration with engineers at TRL (formerly Transport Research Laboratory) to introduce students to how engineers apply the laws of physics to protect people in car crashes and how they design the main safety features in cars, before challenging them to build and test a model car that protects the 'egg' passengers within. This is a prime example of how the expertise of industry can be used in an educational context to bring to life the human impact of scientific discovery as well as, crucially, putting the idea into students' heads that being a part of future discoveries as a scientist themselves is a goal within their reach.
There may of course be the temptation for the industrial partner to get a bit too involved in how and what the young people experience and a perception that they may want to 'brand' the experience. It is really important for the education partner to maintain the final editorial control and for this to be made clear from the very outset of the relationship. For those corporate organisations who understand and appreciate such a relationship, like L'Oréal, the long-term benefits of helping to educate the next generation of scientists will far outweigh the short-term benefits of product placement.
Involving industry in science education has the potential to bring great benefits to both parties. Educational organisations can tap into the scientific, business and promotional expertise of a large corporate and as a result be in a stronger position to engage more young people with cutting edge research, and in return the corporate gets the kudos of 'giving something back' as well as being able to showcase (to both their staff and customers) the depth and breadth of science and technology behind their industry.