Collaborative Approaches to Design

Collaborative Approaches to Design

Over the past nine months, Babraham scientists and public engagement staff have been working on an exciting new project for online audiences.  The aim: working with a local school, to produce a game which engages members of the public with the science behind infections, immunity and vaccinations.  The result: Virus Fighter.

In Virus Fighter, players will discover more about the spread of viral outbreaks and the importance of vaccinations through two modes.  In “Mission Mode” players will make decisions to try and control an outbreak across the UK.  In “Free Mode”, players will be able to alter the properties of four viruses, and explore how this can have drastic impacts on their ability to spread.

A student design for the Virus Fighter game. It shows a map of the UK, with several squares covering different regions.
A student design for the game.

The underlying mechanics are based on an outbreak simulator developed by immunology Group Leader Prof Adrian Liston and Head of Bioinformatics Dr Simon Andrews.  But what makes this project particularly novel for the Institute was that the game was designed collaboratively with students at a local school.

A group of 25 Year 9 students at the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology (CAST) took part in two co-creation sessions to help develop the game.  In the design workshop, students were able to share their ideas for what the game should look like, and how it should work.  These ideas were used to build a prototype model, which was then sent back to students for further input in a testing workshop.

Co-creative projects, such as this one, bring mutual benefit for all involved.  Including young people in the design process gave us new ideas and perspectives, which will improve the effectiveness of the game in engaging its target audience.  Meanwhile, the young people were able to apply their skills to a real-life project, and learn more about the science underpinning the game along the way.  Dr Margarita Beltran, a science teacher at CAST who was highly involved in organising the project, said that VACCINE was:

“A unique project, very relevant to students at the moment that we were in lockdown. This was a really good way to link the real situation with scientists working on developing solutions. Also, students engaged with the content and managed to put their ideas through in a very creative way.”

There were also benefits for the scientists involved, who developed new skills and experiences.  David Posner, a PhD candidate, commented:

“Working on this project has had a very positive impact on my career and excitement about doing science outreach. It has been great to work collaboratively with other scientists on creating missions for the video game, and also to work with the outreach team and the game developers.”

A screenshot from a video call between some of the people working on the VACCINE project. The image is split into a 3x3 grid, each showing the head and shoulders of one person.
Some of the Virus Fighter project team.

And what about the students who took part?  They agreed with their teacher’s positive assessment, with 77% agreeing that “taking part in this project has shown me that young people like me can make important contributions to real-life science projects”.  Two-thirds agreed that through participating they were “more aware of the benefits that vaccination has for our society”.

When asked what they found most positive about taking part in the project, one student commented that it “made me feel like I’m actually contributing to society”.  Another remarked that it had been an “interesting way of learning”, while a third said they appreciated “that our ideas were actually considered”.

This project has been something of a new experience for the Institute.  We set out to give our audience a more active role in the design and development of one of our engagement activities.  In doing so, we have built new connections and strengthened existing ones.  Hopefully, collaborative methods can form an increasing part of our approach to engagement going forward.

Virus Fighter is coming soon.

VACCINE, the project which produced Virus Fighter, was funded through the ORION project. ORION has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº741527.

The flag of the European Union. A blue rectangle with a circle of 12 yellow stars in the centre.