Engaging the next generation of scientists in understanding animal research

Engaging the next generation of scientists in understanding animal research

Engaging the next generation of scientists in understanding animal research

Blog by Hannah Wardle, manager in the Biological Support Unit

In February, members of the Biological Support Unit (BSU) team participated in a challenge project, in partnership with the Cambridge Academy of Science and Technology (CAST). This school is a specialist university technical college, a government-funded school focused on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It provides students aged 14 to 19 with a pathway to university and onto careers in STEM. 

The project 

  • Year 10 students at CAST spend a term learning about the scientific use of animals in research. The curriculum focuses on the unique aspects of this type of research, specifically the care and welfare needs of animals used as research models.
  • Students are challenged to work in groups to design and 3D print a piece of enrichment for a research species of their choice. They must consider practical aspects such as the product retail price, safety, unique selling features and durability.
  • As leaders in openness about animal research and given the Institute’s track record in improving animal welfare, we were invited to give a virtual facility tour, focusing on aspects of our work linked to animal housing and cage enrichment.    

What is cage enrichment and why is it important? 

In-cage or environmental enrichment is an item placed in the cage alongside essentials such as bedding and nesting materials. Environmental enrichment is designed to encourage and promote natural, species-specific, behaviours. For the mouse this includes behaviours such as gnawing, burrowing and hiding.

Striving for the highest possible standards in animal care and welfare is an ethical and moral duty, which is enshrined in UK law. Good animal welfare and wellbeing goes together with good science. High welfare standards are associated with positive behavioural and physiological markers, reducing stress related markers leads to animals that are more robust when undergoing study challenges. Carefully enriching the living environment has been shown not to be a source of increased data variation and doesn't affect study reproducibility.

Sharing the work of animal technicians 

White mouse in red igloo with bedding

This is the second year that the Babraham Institute has participated in this engagement project. On this occasion experienced animal technicians Michael Peachey and Sarah Drummond accompanied unit manager Hannah Wardle. We took a selection of cage enrichment items including Perspex red houses, disposable fun tunnels, chew sticks and nest building items for the students to see and interact with. These items helped inspire the design projects, many incorporated the red Perspex. Mice lack receptors to see red and perceive the area under the Perspex as dark. In addition the circular aspen chew balls, which resemble marbles, were a particular hit with the students and a few of these were squirrelled away in people’s pockets. Not just enrichment for our mice!   

After the virtual tour showing the inside of our BSU, and the specialist equipment used to monitor animal welfare and maintain high scientific standards we talked to students, reviewing their computer aided design (CAD) ideas and answering a wide range of questions. Some groups took a detail orientated approach to the project, with advanced design plans and questions specifically related to their projects for example would mice enjoy flavoured plastic items and what flavours might they prefer? Others, at this very early stage, wanted some career advice such as whether we’d recommend going to university and how to achieve a STEM-related job with a good salary.

The final pitch

Soon the engineering students at CAST will bring the designs to life by 3D printing the enrichment items. The summer term culminates with a Dragons Den style pitch, where student groups will sell their designs to an expert panel of ‘Dragon’ judges. Early career technicians from the BSU will sit on the Dragon panel to ask tough questions about the products viability in a competitive market.  

My team are also looking forward to getting involved in this challenge again next year. The scope of the project is likely to grow, with the students challenged to design a whole building that can house two species of animals for research purposes, which brings new logistical challenges as well as welfare considerations.

Top 3 reasons why I enjoy public engagement and outreach

  1. Science was my favourite subject at school, and I personally gained a lot from trips and interactions with local scientific employers when I was a student. Indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that my first role in the world of work was for an employer I’d visited on a school trip! Now I enjoy giving back in the hope of inspiring others.
  2. Through public engagement, we get to encourage the next generation of scientists, some of whom might work for the Institute one day.
  3. It is important for the BSU to be open and transparent about the use of animals to help inform people about animal research and provide a balanced viewpoint.


The Institute provides opportunities for all staff to learn more about how we use animals on site through the Animal Research Seminars and the regular virtual tours of the BSU which are open to all.