Jon Hale (@BeaulieuBio), Head of Biology at Beaulieu Convent School, discusses the value of long term collaborative projects to inspire future scientists.
The curriculum reforms of the last few years have led to fewer students taking science subjects. The breadth and content of the new GCSE specifications, along with the demands of the assessments, where the top-end students are stretched and challenged, often leaves middling students feeling overwhelmed. Coupling this with the decisions of many schools to offer only three A-levels at post-16, means that in many schools fewer students are taking sciences. For example, our current Sixth Form Chemistry comprises of only four students across both year groups.
Despite government policy, including recent financial constraints, lots of projects are trying to promote the STEM agenda in schools. Many of these focus on short-term inspirational demonstrations and talks, but exposing students to the opportunities available to them in science can require a little more effort that a couple of hours on a Tuesday afternoon.
One of the key themes running through the Gatsby Career Benchmarks is the exposure of young people to career experiences. Think back to your scientific career, undoubtedly there has been plenty of reading, and some data collection but there are many more processes in your career, from talking with your peers and building collaborations, to problem solving and teaching yourself how to use new technology (or coding). Students should be able to experience all of these facets to gain a true insight into the career of a scientist and make informed choices. This requires immersive projects rather than content delivery.
In my past I have tried to inspire students to undertake the Extended Project Qualification to capture their interests, but these projects, often a little esoteric, only develop an interest that was already there, it does not add anything, or open any more eyes to science. This is where the Royal Society have stepped in. They offer up to £3000 to schools working with a STEM partner. The project can be driven by the school or the STEM partner. I can feel the ideas popping out your ears from here! This year we were successful in gaining a Royal Society Partnership Grant to study daffodils here in Jersey. What began as a relatively bland observation, that there are loads of different varieties growing in hedgerows, led to a quest to look for a phylogenetic relationship.
Undoubtedly the hardest aspect of putting together the application is getting a good match for the STEM Partner and school. Sending out emails to a few known contacts made this happen for us. Fran Gale at the Wellcome Genome Campus, had come across a team (who hadn’t published at the time of searching) who had just sequenced the first plastome (the little circular DNA genome of a chloroplast) in a daffodil. And all it took was a yes from Dr Kálmán Könyves and the ball started rolling.
It has been a bit of a perfect storm, in a good way, DNA sequencing technology fits into our budget thanks to Oxford Nanopore and MiniPCR, as well as having a reference sequence from the Narcissus poeticus plastome and the change in curriculum demands.
Our project pulls together fieldwork, labwork and data science. With the first daffodils already popping up, students are now collecting and archiving specimens. They will bring these along to our sessions to decide which individuals to sequence. Even though this project is in its infancy, social media has allowed scientists from USA to share what they do regarding the DNA library prep. This is exactly what I wanted, students collaborating with proper scientists doing meaningful research. Once we have sequenced the plastomes, we will then delve into the dark arts of coding, as we assemble the contigs to get a sequence of the plastome from each of the individuals. Fortunately for us, there are a few open source programmes out there to help us with this and the next step of building a phylogenetic tree.
As you know, tangible research is only one aspect of being a scientist and that’s the wonderful thing about the Royal Society. In November, students got to share the project with peers doing a myriad of different projects from using camera traps to monitor wildlife in the school grounds to using Python to look for stars, but the highlight has got to be how they were grilled by Fellows of the Royal Society. There is also an opportunity to present at the Summer Science Exhibition. Fingers crossed.