The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions. – Claude Levi-Strauss.
Having been a ‘researcher’ for a few years now, I have had to battle the stereotype of a ‘crazy scientist’ with many school-going kids. In my attempts at outreach activities, I have tried to explain why science interests me and how life in a laboratory is more than just white coats and nerdy discussions.
I have worked with school children aged 10-17 in the past, trying to explain to them the very idea of research. My approach to this can be best described as an attempt to show them where to look but not what to see, and wait to hear what it is that captured their attention. And I have been amazed at the potential of untrained minds. However, the way most outreach activities are structured, they turn out to be a one-off experience for students. And for a while, I have been interested in taking up ‘outreach’ with teachers themselves.
I stumbled upon the activities of EdinCell, a science communication project based in the University of Edinburgh, purely by chance. And I expressed my interest in being a part of their next ‘activity’. And I had a brief conversation on a Friday afternoon with Dr. Mar Carmena from the School of Biological Sciences, who runs the show with the help of many like-minded volunteers from different laboratories at the Institute of Cell Biology. Two things stood out for me: that EdinCell has a larger interest in developing new and engaging resources for schools and that they meant to work not only with students but also with teachers.
To my great surprise and satisfaction, Mar talked about the RAiSE programme, the new initiative funded by the Wood Foundation in partnership with the Scottish Government. RAiSE intends to “ensure that every young person enjoys a positive experience of, and engagement with, high quality science education in primary school” by providing Primary school teachers with adequate resources and training. Mar has been working in partnership with Mrs Juliet Lunniss (RaiSe Primary Science Development Officer for Edinburgh City Council) and Ms Nikki Wright (Principal Teacher at St David’s RC Primary). During the last year they have had regular meetings to develop new workshops and activities linked to the Primary Science Curriculum. The next step is to organise CPD (continuous professional development) sessions for local Primary School teachers. Teacher CPDs are form of science communication aimed at helping teachers in their confidence and competence to deliver the Science Curriculum in an engaging way in schools. In my opinion, public engagement has a much wider reach when the focus is on teachers.
At an event at Dynamic Earth on February 1st, 2018, primary school teachers with an interest in teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects got together to hear about new developments and for the exchange of ideas. Interesting talks were followed by a market-place session with exhibitors from a variety of STEM based learning organisations. We were a team of about 10 volunteers, with varied backgrounds in research and at different stages of our careers, representing the initiatives of RAiSE. As primary school teachers walked past our stalls, we engaged them with interesting props like USB microscopes that can be plugged into a laptop to ease the challenges of looking through the objectives of a conventional microscope, sweet candies to build and explain the structure of DNA, glasses that replicated insect vision, etc. We also had games designed to explain basic concepts of genetics and inheritance using fruit flies as an example and in addition, fruit flies themselves with noticeable mutations that could be observed under the microscope. The idea was to present to them what we have done in the past and to encourage them to participate in CPD programmes with us.
From stimulating conversations about the life cycle of fruit flies and concepts of mutations to busting myths that fruit flies stink, the event was a big success in having captured the interests of many teachers. Over 30 of them signed up showing their interest in participating in the upcoming Teacher CPDs and also expressed their desire for EdinCell to hold workshops in their schools. With Teacher CPDs in underprivileged schools, EdinCell hopes to impact a much larger number of students over time and improve their understanding of the very basic rules and concepts of biology. If you would be interested in joining hands with us, please get in touch through Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook: Edin Cell or Twitter @edincell.
This article was written by Aishwarya Sivakumar and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.