Watching scientists pitching their research projects felt like being in an episode of Dragons’ Den. I sat among a group of fledgling science communicators, tasked with choosing a project to develop into a school science activity. My first assignment as a new student, freshly enrolled on the UWE PGCert in Science Communication, was to create an activity suitable for UWE’s BoxED scheme!
I was paired with Gabrielle Wheway, who studies DNA to understand how mutations in genes alter their function and was awarded a prize for her research on retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited form of blindness. We met over coffee to discuss how I could design a hands-on activity that would communicate an aspect of Gabrielle’s research1 to a secondary school audience within a 45-60 minute session in a classroom environment.
Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is caused by mutations in the genes that control vision. Most people with RP are born sighted but experience gradual, progressive deterioration of vision as they grow older. Symptoms can begin at any age and there is no way to predict how quickly the condition will progress. Early signs include difficulty seeing at night and tunnel vision, followed by loss of colour and central vision. Gabrielle mentioned the charity RP Fighting Blindness and I contacted their local support group to learn more about the disease and what it is like for people living with RP.
Over the next few weeks, I started to formulate an idea: my Box would draw on lived experiences of RP and build on four themes in the National Curriculum for Biology at Key Stage 4 (i.e. non-communicable diseases; gene inheritance; impact of genomics on medicine; and uses of modern biotechnology and associated ethical considerations). It would be targeted towards students in Year 10, who could bring in broader perspectives from other GCSE subjects, such as ethics, religious studies or philosophy.
The people from RP Fighting Blindness had shown me some glasses that simulate a type of visual deterioration common in RP. I decided that my activity would involve experiencing what it feels like to have an altered field of vision. I also wanted to establish a personal connection, and found a short film about being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Finally, I thought about genes as units of inheritance and how they are passed from one generation to the next. Under the working title “Simon’s Box”, my activity looks at genetics and inherited disease using RP as a case study.
Designing a BoxED activity has been an enjoyable experience. I’ve learnt about the National Curriculum for science, researched good practice in designing exhibitions at Science Museums, and delved into learning styles and education theory. I’ve rediscovered a personal interest in genetics and human biology, and developed something of an affection for RP. And I’m delighted that we are now getting ready to roll it out to local schools and festivals. So, if you’re planning to attend the Festival of Nature or Cheltenham Science Festival in June, come along to the UWE BoxED stand and try out some of our hands-on science activities!
This year, I have been lucky enough to receive a FET Award to promote STEM at a local primary school in south Bristol. Our key aims have been to use the expertise of UWE staff and students to deliver events which not only encourage children to pursue STEM careers, but also support teachers with some of the harder to achieve National Curriculum objectives.
Our first activity involved all students in Key Stage 2 – 120 in total. Inspired by the LED cards on Sparkfun, and ably assisted by fellow FARSCOPE students Hatem and Katie, we ran a lesson in which students used copper tape, LEDs and coin cell batteries to create a light-up Christmas tree or fire-side scene. Our aim was not only to show the students that electronics is fun and accessible, but to re-reinforce the KS2 National Curriculum objectives relating to electricity and conductivity.
Although a little hectic, the students really enjoyed the task and the teachers felt that the challenge of interacting with such basic components (as opposed to more “kid friendly” kits), really helped to drive home our lesson objectives.
To re-reinforce the Christmas card activity, we also ran a LED Creativity contest over the Christmas break. Students were given a pack containing some batteries, LEDs and copper tape and tasked with creating something cool.
Entries ranged from cameras with working flash to scale replicas of the school. The full range of entries and winners can be found here. Overall, we were blown away by the number and quality of the entries.
Our second focus was introducing students to programming. To this end, we have been running a regular code club every Monday, this time supported by volunteers from UWE alongside FARSCOPE student Jasper. In code club, we use a mix of materials to introduce students to the programming language scratch. We currently have 16 students attending each week and recently were lucky enough to receive a number of BBC Micro bits.
Alongside Code club, we also ran a workshop with the Year 5 class, to directly support the national curriculum objectives related to programming. Students were given Tortoise robots (Built by FARSCOPE PhD students, in honour of some of the very first autonomous robots, built in Bristol by Grey Walter). Children had to program and debug an algorithm capable of navigating a maze.
As the outreach award comes to an end, we are planning a final grand event. Each year the students at Luckwell School get to spend a week learning about real-life money matters in “Luckwell Town”. During this week, students do not attend lessons – instead, they can choose to work at a number of jobs to earn Luckwell Pounds. This year, we will be supporting Luckwell Town by helping to run a Games Development studio. Students will use Scratch to design and program simple games for other students to play in the Luckwell Arcade.
As with our prior events, the success will depend on volunteers from UWE donating their time and expertise to support us.
Luckwell Town will take place every morning of the week commencing June 12th. We are looking for volunteers to support us, so please respond to the Doodle poll if you are interested.
Martin Garrad, PhD student in robotics