Stem cells in the classroom
Not many researchers go directly into schools to teach science lessons, but that’s what Professor Ian Chambers from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine did when he teamed up with EuroStemCell science communicator Emma Kemp. They have just published an academic paper on their experience of bringing stem cell research into schools. Here’s what they learned.
Not all schoolchildren want to grow up to be scientists, but they can be enthused about science, and equipped with the knowledge and skills to understand the relevance of science to their lives and decision-making.
Lots of adults can remember a particular time when they got the science bug. For Ian, this was a visit to a university lab aged 13. For Emma, it was her first physics teacher’s enthusiastic introduction to fundamental questions about the universe. We wanted to provide some moments like these to high school students, and we started with Ian’s old high school, the very one that had taken him on that early university visit.
As well as being Ian’s area of expertise, stem cell research is an ideal topic for engaging students in research, encompassing as it does basic cell biology, potential medical applications that students may have heard of, and ethical implications which encourage debate about the place of science in society.
From our initial lofty aim of producing one lesson to cover these three aspects, we eventually spent three years developing, testing and revising three one-hour lessons for 12- to 14-year-olds. This may sound like a daunting amount of time, but we wanted to make sure each lesson really worked, not only when we delivered it but also in the hands of other researchers, teachers or facilitators in many countries. This meant that as well as producing the lessons themselves, we’ve also produced and thoroughly piloted guidance on delivering them.
So what did we learn? Lessons need to work for everyone involved: students, teachers and researchers. Teachers, like researchers, are busy people, so working around their constraints and schedules is a must. They are also much more likely to devote time and energy to activities related to the curriculum, into which stem cell research has now been added.
Like all of us, school students learn by engaging with material, not simply by being told things. A one-hour talk could have contained every message we wanted to get across, but it would have been unlikely that such an approach would have really connected with and enthused students, or enabled them to learn effectively. Instead we took the approach of developing key ideas we wanted to get across, and coming up with interesting and interactive games and activities to cover each of them.
We also learned that it’s important to be practical about the school day – the end-of-lesson bell can’t be argued with, and there really will be at least five minutes of settling the class down at the start of the session. We even found that Tuesday morning was the best time to capture pupils’ interest as it avoids the disruption hotspots and low energy points.
In the three years of development, around 700 students took part in the lessons, delivered by six researchers. All three lessons are now freely available online in English, with translations into five other languages either already available or coming soon. We’ve also held training workshops for both researchers and teachers using the lessons as examples.
Researchers face many demands on their time, and may not always be inclined towards public engagement. But as well as becoming more important to funders and universities, we believe interacting with the public is both a valuable experience and an important responsibility for researchers. And what’s more, it’s great fun!
We hope our experience inspires and informs others to have fun carrying out similar projects ― you might be surprised how much you learn yourselves in the process.
Ian Chambers & Emma Kemp
Lessons in learning, EMBO reports 10.15252/embr.201439398 (2014)