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Regular version of the site

How did Lab research condition of STEM disciplines in schools of Vyborgsky district

The expedition finished in the first half of October, the students and researchers of СЛОН have already returned to their educational and working duties, but continue to discuss stories from the field work. Currently, this is very useful – we are preparing the reports and planning further work. And, of course, we have written this final material on the website for those who follow our adventures.
The laboratory has conducted the expedition after a long forced break. The previous field work of students and researchers of the Laboratory outside the city was organised in the distant 2019 – for obvious reasons, until recently we could not afford such luxury. Fortunately, this year, the tradition of field research is coming back!

What did we study

Like in the previous years, the expedition thematics continued the main interest of the Laboratory. This year we research factors of student success in STEM. A question that we wanted to answer during the expedition sounded like this: how do schools in different social contexts work with children who have talent for STEM disciplines. It was pivotal for us to understand how practices and narratives of students and teachers differ in urban and rural schools. 

It is known that half of Russian schools are rural ones. While students even from small cities can choose from the variety of extracurricular activities and schools with different specialisation, for a rural area such opportunities are restricted. However, students who are good at STEM are found everywhere. So are the brilliant examples of rural schools and teachers who give students a good educational start despite working with limited resources.

Dream team

For students, the expedition was a great opportunity to gain experience of field research, about which they wrote in a motivational letter when applying for the project. Recently, students themselves studied in schools, prepared for the Russian State Exam and looked for an opportunity to develop their skills. According to the guys: “a sociologist can not call himself a sociologist if he has never participated in real field work”. Stories from research trips of previous years, photo reports, and enthusiastic feedback from research teams triggered the interest of sociologists.

The interview was the most exciting event for students. The leaders of the expedition, Darya Khodorenko and Daniel Alexandrov, along with intern researcher Adelina Akhmedova, spent the whole day asking the students about their academic interests and favourite topics in sociology. More than 40 candidates wanted to try their hand at field work, and only 15 of them were selected by strict teaching staff. “The challenge was to find people who are ready for field work, who can work together and learn something new together. I think it was achieved. We have a good team that will continue to work together on the theme of rural schools and the role of STEM disciplines in overcoming social inequality,” says Darya Konstantinovna.

Sofya Isakova, a 3rd year student:

“ The interview was conducted in an online format. I prepared for it in advance and thought about answers to questions that may be asked. Of course, despite that, I was still a little worried, but I tried to stay calm and show that I already have experience in research. Eventually, I was taken on an expedition.

Some students were so worried that they could not answer the questions as they wanted! However, even those who did not pass the initial screening but showed a great desire for participation and interest in science were able to join the project.

Polina Ermolaeva, a 3rd year student:

“ [After the interview] I received a letter informing me that my application had been put on the waiting list and that I had not passed the initial screening. Of course, I was very disappointed, but I did not lose hope. And not for nothing! Literally two days later, I was texted again. I was told that someone had refused to participate in the expedition, and I would take this position. So it is my advice to future sociologists: try to calm down before the interview, you will not be eaten! And if you receive rejection, do not give up, your chance will not go away.

Preparation for the field work

It is impossible to enter the field without prior preparation. Every researcher knows this! Before arriving at Vyborg, the expedition participants met three times. Students and researchers studied a map of the area, capturing the location of schools and setting up routes to them. The students searched for information about the features of the area, for example,  businesses nearby or the distance to the regional centre, and read news reports. To understand the specifics, specialisation and “success” of schools, students studied social networks, websites of educational institutions and reviews from forums.

After exploring the area, the team began discussing an interview guide for students and teachers. Some participants of the expedition already had experience of communication with informants, for others our expedition became a battle cry. The difficulty of the work was that the students should not only ask pre-prepared questions, but rather speak freely with interlocutors. Teachers and students actively discussed the guide and background of each question.

One of the tasks of heads of the project was to prepare students for the interview, to teach them to communicate with adult informants (teachers and school employees) without much anxiety. We read and reread the interview guide together, practised telling each other legends, were not afraid to make mistakes and felt supported. By the middle of the expedition, everyone felt confident during the interview and was not afraid to go beyond the boundaries of the guide. 

Everyday routine and experiences

A typical day during the expedition looked like this:

  1. At the scheduled time, all participants gathered for a joint breakfast, which was prepared by duty cooks from among students.

  2. Then, having prepared for the road, we gathered in the corridor of the hostel.

  3. Just before leaving, a brief conversation was held with the team leader, where the last instructions were given before the working day.

  4. The research teams, consisting of 4-5 people, travelled to their designated schools, where they conducted interviews and inspected the area. At the end of the work, teams came back to the “base”.

  5. In the evening, everyone gathered for a joint dinner that had been prepared by duty cooks. 

  6. The day ended with a big evening discussion of the impressions, materials that were collected during the day, and ideas for improving the process of information collection.

The team had a clear schedule, but despite the seeming routine, each day was different and brought new impressions. Researchers themselves will tell about their personal experience: we asked the participants of the expedition to share the most memorable moments.

Anna Tedikova, a 3rd year student:

“I like travelling very much, even nearby, and the trip to Vyborg seemed to me a good thing for my mental health – when I applied, I wanted to change the situation and distance myself from my worries… It really helped me to go to Vyborg to reload emotionally.

I liked communicating with senior colleagues, writing observation diaries. Sometimes I faced very interesting informants, it was great to get in touch with a way of life that was unusual for me, a city dweller.

Ian Talia, a 3rd year student:

“The interview on the Russian stove at the school museum was memorable. I suggested to my informant to go behind the furnace, where there was a small space with at least some sound insulation. But while I was searching for chairs, he appeared on the stove, and I had no choice but to climb up and follow him… By the way, there was really some fabulous atmosphere on the stove (especially given that there was also a kitchen utensil around), which prepared the informant for conversation and gave a sense of calm. <…>

The expedition gave an amazing opportunity for a week to move away from the usual patterns of life and from the daily routine, and from the current information background. Thanks to this “exit from everyday life” and change of the situation, I not only quickly regained strength, but also increased it.

It is also worth mentioning that the expedition is a constant communication with a variety of completely different people from different social backgrounds with completely different world views. In usual life, we tend to form our “bubble” which we leave infrequently, and in field work there is no bubble, no “comfort zone”. There are only different people to whom you need to find your approach, to the position of which you always need to show respect, which you need to learn to listen carefully.

Sofya Isakova, a 3rd year students:

“I enjoyed conducting interviews and looking at the world through the teachers’ eyes, listening to how very motivated students talk about the process of preparing for the Olympiads and exams. During the interview, it seems like these students already have a life plan and are confident in their future. Every day we listened to completely different life stories, which were then arranged into separate components and theoretical cases relevant to our research. It was also interesting to travel to schools in different settlements and observe how everything is organised here.

Darya K. Khodorenko, a head of the expedition:

“I remember, of course, the field, and schools. Every year there are new interesting insights. We have seen how educational institutions work with talented children, how teachers cope with sometimes very limited resources. A homelike and ancient, Vyborg has also inspired. In one countryside we saw a Finnish water mill, and another group on that day was lucky to see a beautiful kirkha (northern modern style) in Primorsk city. I like the schools, good coordinated work of the students, cool interviews, cool evening discussions and Ian’s pancakes.


During the week in the sociological field, students and Laboratory staff were able to visit 19 schools (6 schools in Vyborg city and 13 in other provincial settlements), to take 43 interviews with teachers and 50 interviews with pupils. Each participant of the expedition conducted two or three interviews a day, and on some days – even more! Impressions of the interviews and their content were transformed into 77 field diaries. The work of sociologists is not finished there. The expedition has ended, but we can say with confidence that a united team will continue to study the life of mathematics and physics in schools of the Leningrad region. The instructors organised a project team, which included the participants of the expedition.

Material is prepared by Anna Yudaeva, Maria Erofeeva, Polina Ermolaeva