Home-education family visit to the labs

Home-education family visit to the labs

A cool and sunny autumn morning welcomed a group of home education families to their first visit ever at the Babraham Institute. Twenty excited children and their parents gathered in front of Babraham Hall for a day of science and learning. I too was excited as this was the first time (in recent memory at least) that home educators had visited the Babraham Institute and the first time I had hosted students. In many ways we were all charting new territory.

Home education is an alternative approach to the traditional dynamic of teaching and learning found in most schools. My wife and I have been home educating our two children for about 5 years. Our journey as a family began in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, progressed through America’s dairy land (Wisconsin, USA) and crossed the Atlantic to Cambridge. Throughout our home education adventure, I have seen my children grow and thrive socially, emotionally, academically and creatively. In Cambridge there is a growing and diverse home education community, so when I learnt that a group of home educators was interested in organising a visit to BI, I felt compelled to get involved.

We decided a DNA-themed day would be most appropriate for the children who ranged from the ages of 8 to 14. I immediately felt comfortable with the theme as my own research focuses on how ageing is accompanied by gene expression changes. After a brief introduction to the institute, I spoke about what DNA is and took the visiting students and their families through some of the most profound discoveries that have shed light on our understanding of DNA function in cells. The children in this group, like some many other home educated children I’ve met, were unabashed, highly inquisitive and keen to participate.

Michael Hinton, from the Institute’s public engagement team then orchestrated the DNA extraction from strawberries protocol, which involved mashing up the strawberries, filtering the fresh 'lysate' and finally precipitating the DNA. Carefully, the children added cold ethanol to their samples which slowly revealed the sought-after material. It was truly humbling to see how something that we normally take for granted in the lab could have such a profound effect on a child’s imagination. However, no one was more excited than Michael who was thoroughly impressed by how much DNA could actually be seen in their samples and by how many successful experiments we had that day!

A tour of the campus gave the families a small glimpse of our research-driven lives. Our work benches, cold rooms and the questions we are trying to answer certainly inspired the children, with some even wanting to become scientists themselves. As a day came to a close, the last question was directed at the volunteers who had helped with the children throughout their visit; Clara Novo, Stefan Schoenfelder, Ruslan Strogantsev and Laetitia Chauve. What is it about being scientists that you enjoy the most? We all agreed curiosity, discovery and exploration are some of the strongest forces that underlie our fundamental motivation. Very much like what motivates the inquisitive mind of the unhindered child.