Schools' Day 25: From contribution to coordination
Michael Hinton reflects on his involvement with Schools’ Day and how it has changed since his time at the bench. In our previous 25th Schools' Day posts, we explored progress in science and education since 1995, examining what has changed and what remains the same.
Cast your mind back to the mid-nineties, 1995 to be exact, March 1995 if you want to be really picky! The Schengen Agreement was just coming into effect, easing cross-border travel in the EU. Celine Dion was number one in the charts with “Think Twice” (and people still cared who was number one in the charts). Haemophilus influenzae had just become the first free living organism to have its genome sequenced. Computer screens were cumbersome cathode ray tubes and Windows 95 was just about to be launched.
In 1995 I was working in the Neurobiology Department at the Babraham Institute, studying sheep as a model of maternal behaviour, memory formation and face recognition – research areas underpinned by the BBSRC remit for improving animal welfare. There had been considerable public interest in the work of our laboratory and I had already attended several national events to engage public audiences. When projects were sought for a new school’s event we were keen to contribute.
The first year we were allocated a group of students from Sawston Village College and we went to observe and evaluate maternal behaviour of sheep – it was still lambing season, a busy time for us. The students were keen to experience our research first-hand and equally interested in the career paths of our researchers. I saw little of the other 24 projects, but was very aware of the groups of students and teachers moving around the campus.
Over the next few years our project for Schools’ Day shifted its focus, reflecting the changing direction of work in our lab. By 2000, our research into face recognition had attracted considerable media interest and we had created a computer activity for people to compare their own face-recognition skills with those of the sheep. The activity featured at the Science Museum in London and formed the basis of our millennium Schools’ day project. It proved very popular. A PhD student in the lab created a complementary activity which measured the students’ ability to recall faces and words. My own ability to remember faces turned out to be below average!
In 2004 I was seconded to what was then the Corporate Affairs Office to help with the communications and outreach program. This would be my first experience of coordination rather than just contribution to Schools Day at the Institute. In 2005 my continuing responsibility for schools’ outreach became official and my role as coordinator for Schools’ Day really kicked in.
Since 2005 the campus, our research programs, our scientists and their projects have changed considerably, and so too have the number and locations of schools who have taken part. New researchers have brought novel ideas, emerging areas of research and innovative activities for the students. New members of the Public Engagement team have brought fresh ways of working, and while the continuing development of the campus has brought occasional logistical complications it has also resulted in long-lasting and very welcome changes to Schools’ Day.
This year, projects from almost every Institute research group are complemented by the biggest ever number of projects run by companies on the Babraham Research Campus. Definigen, Crescendo Biologics and Cancer Research Technology have been joined this year by Storm Therapeutics, RxCelerate, Kymab and Phoremost, all offering projects which demonstrate opportunities in commercial research and highlight the power of collaboration.
Our 25th Schools’ Day will welcome nearly 200 students and teachers, not only from Cambridgeshire but also from Cardiff, London and even Jersey – a demonstration of social media’s growing communication power as well as good old-fashioned word of mouth. For the third year, teachers have the chance to take part in projects for themselves. This not only gives students a more independent experience in the labs, but also satisfies the curiosity of teachers who are equally keen to learn about new techniques and technologies. Our researchers also find Schools’ Day to be a valuable and rewarding experience; they enjoy sharing their enthusiasm and expertise and gain experience in engaging with adults as well as students – two audience that are often very different.
Despite the evolution of Schools’ Day over the decades, one thing that remains unchanged is the way that the day brings the whole Institute and Campus together. I am grateful to our researchers who are always incredibly generous with their time and enthusiastic about sharing their passion for science. While of course the individual students are different each year, their attitude and feedback are consistently positive. They enjoy the hands-on activities and learning how our research is relevant to their lives as well as the curriculum. They appreciate the chance to learn about our researchers’ backgrounds and career choices, and to discover what life in the lab is actually like. And there are always comments about the refreshments!
Schools Day remains one of my favourite Public Engagement events, a highlight of the year. I look forward to welcoming this year’s students, teachers and our other guests on Wednesday 6th March and for many years to come.