Looking back and thinking ahead – how student engagement in research is spreading
I recently travelled to Sophianum School in the south of the Netherlands to continue our award-winning collaboration with their secondary and sixth-form students. I was accompanied by scientists Boo Virk and Dorottya Horkai, and Public Engagement Manager Tacita Croucher, and together we had a busy programme delivering workshops exploring the ethics of the use of animals in science, explaining the research carried out at the Babraham Institute and describing our careers in science.
The main purpose of this latest visit to the school was to see how the 4th-year (sixth-form) students had interpreted the design and research challenges we set them last November. Two groups of students presented their work to us and their fellow students – the other groups had chosen projects from local companies and organisations. Both groups answered our questions well and their presentations showed how methodically they had worked in the development of their models and the supporting information. It was great to see how well they had responded to the challenges we set them and it was clear how much work they had put into the projects.
The first group presented their idea for an animal unit, which would allow the public to have greater access while maintaining both the health of the animals and the safety of the animal technicians who care for them. Their presentation made it apparent how carefully they had considered the issues involved while their well-constructed model made it very easy for us to understand how their ideas could be implemented. The model featured glass-walled corridors, windows with variable opacity and even a lift to allow a top-down view of the cage-washing robots through a glass ceiling.
The second group had created an exhibit to explain the principles of epigenetics – the study of changes in gene function which do not involve changes in the DNA sequence itself - designed to be suitable for a science festival audience. Towering nearly two metres tall, the model (pictured right) featured a decorative DNA double helix, and carefully-constructed, scientifically-accurate molecular modelling, as well as genes which lit up at the press of a switch. The model gave us some great ideas for constructing our own exhibits. The presentation was equally impressive, demonstrating the students’ grasp of epigenetics – a subject which has only recently been included in the A-Level curriculum in the UK.
We were particularly pleased to have the chance to speak to a representative of Technasium, the organisation which coordinates the 94 schools across the Netherlands involved in projects like ours. Sophianum is the only school which has an international partner for their projects and Technasium are keen to promote that across the whole country. They have invited us to present our projects to a nearby school, leading to collaboration between the two schools as well as extending the reach of our work.
We also discussed how we could adapt this year’s projects for the next students in the Technasium classes. Having projects linked to our use of animals has proved popular with the younger students, so we will also challenge them to investigate legislation and opinions on the use of animals in research. The latter is similar to a challenge project run at the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology and so it will be interesting to compare the ideas created by the two schools and even discuss creating links between them.
We will repeat the Epigenetics project as it had such a great response from the sixth-form students and their teachers, and we are planning a brand-new challenge, which will link to the Institute’s Signalling Programme. The students will be challenged to design an activity to demonstrate how signalling pathways work within and between cells, and why those pathways are so important for the function and health of our cells.
So an exciting year lies ahead – I’m looking forward to working with a new school as well as a new team of scientists to design a brand-new challenge from scratch. But most of all I’m looking forward to seeing the ideas that next year’s students come up with!