Enriching the school curriculum by incorporating state-of-the-art scientific research is an excellent way to increase interest in science subjects and inspire students to follow careers in STEM. Yet, researchers can only visit so many schools, or host limited numbers of individual pupils in their institutes. As an alternative approach, Dr Andrew Armitage (MRC Human Immunology Unit, Radcliffe Department of Medicine) joined forces with Chris Catto, from Bishop Challoner Catholic College in Birmingham (lead school of the Central Midlands Science Learning Partnership). Chris is a chemistry teacher and also leads the work of the Science Learning Partnership, which is a part of STEM Learning, an organisation funded by the Department for Education to provide continuing professional development for teachers. “One of our programmes aims to engage with researchers funded by Research Councils UK at higher education establishments, to improve teachers’ engagement with cutting edge science research” explains Chris. “We delivered a course with the Astrophysics Department at Birmingham University, and were keen to try a similar format with biomedical research, particularly since Biology is an under-represented subject in teachers’ development programs”. Dr Andrew Armitage was supportive of this idea “It sounded like a great opportunity. Inspiring and motivating a group of teachers by allowing them to engage with the latest science and link this into their teaching has the potential to enhance the learning of the many hundreds of pupils that they teach”.
The organisers designed the day to be relevant not only to biology but also chemistry and physics teachers, while maintaining clear links to the latest research. They recruited the help of two of the WIMM’s flagship facilities – super-resolution imaging and flow cytometry. The morning session was structured around two theoretical talks on the physical and chemical principles underlying these two techniques, and how they are being used to answer important questions in biomedical research. The talks were followed by tours of the facilities, allowing the participants to see the techniques in action. In the afternoon, Andrew and Prof Hal Drakesmith introduced their own research on how the body handles iron, and how this relates to two major global health issues - infection and anaemia. This led into an interactive activity through which teachers gained insight into the challenges faced by global health policy makers in tackling childhood anaemia. Finally, the teachers discussed the ways in which the topics covered could be incorporated into their teaching syllabuses.
Ten secondary teachers attended the course, eight of whom were from state schools, and their feedback was very positive. Amy Birch, a Biology teacher from the Warriner School, Banbury, said that “The day was really inspirational and reminded me of what I love about the subject, which will be great to convey to pupils!”. The impact of the course in the classroom is already being felt. Some of the teachers commented on their surprise that new super resolution techniques are allowing light microscopy to be used to examine very detailed structures within cells, a capability that they thought was still restricted to electron microscopy. “In the space of one week I have already used what I learnt in the course.” explained Hannah Start, a teacher from Birmingham “For example, in revision with my year 10 groups we have done comparisons of the advantages and disadvantages of electron and light microscopes”. The tours were also a highlight, as was the thought-provoking discussion on global health issues.
The organisers are encouraged by the feedback and hope to run the course again, “The principles underlying the work in the WIMM are excellent for conveying how the latest scientific methods and concepts can be applied to bring advances in tackling human disease.” said Andrew “It’s important that teachers have an opportunity to meet with scientists and to give them an insight into what goes on in a high-level medical research institution”.