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Hands-on DNA

school pupils in lab coats using scientific equipment

Hands on DNA is an excellent example of a successful collaboration between the University of Liverpool and World Museum, which strengthened the roles of both organisations. 

Early in 2011 World Museum was invited to bid to be part of the national programme of Hands on DNA practical workshops funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project was aimed at key stage 3 and 4 pupils studying biology at tertiary level. We successfully bid and became one of the centres trained and equipped to deliver the Hands on DNA Bacterial Evolution Workshop. The national programme was a collaboration between the Association of Science and Discovery Centres and three other partner centres - At-Bristol, Nowgen in Manchester and the Centre for Life in Newcastle. 

The project celebrated molecular biology and aimed to provide high tech equipment alongside training to deliver 3 hour cutting-edge molecular biology and evolution workshops, as part of our 2012 schools programme. Since the inception of the project at World Museum we have delivered 16 workshops to more than 200 year 10, 11 and 12 pupils from a range of secondary schools throughout Merseyside. 

Workshops

We were supplied with all the equipment to do a gel electrophoresis, restriction digest experiment on a species of bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes. The bacterium is very common and generally does not cause disease, although responsible for some mild conditions like Strep throat and impetigo. However, in some (rare) cases Strep pyogenes can cause life-threatening kidney disease or the ‘flesh-eating’ necrotising fasciitis.

The workshop took place in the Entomology Laboratory at World Museum. Pupils were given access to equipment they would not normally use until at least the second year at university. The pupils were suitably attired in lab coats, gloves, and protective glasses. The practical nature of the workshop met the needs of teachers by adhering to objectives of the National Curriculum for Science, and offering an experience that cannot be replicated the classroom. Examples of the topic areas covered include DNA, evolution, enzymes, infection and immunity. Practical techniques and hands-on activities included: 

  • Use of micropipettes to accurately measure small volumes
  • Gel electrophoresis and DNA staining – parallels with DNA fingerprinting/profiling
  • Restriction enzymes and genetic engineering – an activity to investigate how restriction enzymes cut DNA to leave ‘sticky ends’ and how they can be used in genetic engineering to insert DNA from one organism into another
  • Bacterial growth and evolution – a game which illustrates factors affecting bacterial growth and the effects of mutations on bacterial populations

The sessions were further enhanced because the bulk of the activity was delivered by PhD students from the University of Liverpool, School of Life Sciences. The students provided an in depth knowledge and range of practical experience that was of great benefit to the pupils. The high student to pupil ratio contributed to the success of the practicals. The pupils also benefitted from learning about the educational history and ambitions of the science students, who were only a few years older than them. This was incredibly useful in terms of the dynamics of the group and provided inspiration in terms of career choices etc. 

Outcomes

Feedback has shown that teachers at Key Stage 3 and 4 are keen to have access to this type of workshop and environment, coupled with opportunity to work with experience and qualified staff. 

Dr Hilary Leavers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust gave a presentation, The Importance of Hands on Science Learning, in which she talked about the success of the Hands on DNA project in exceeding targets, and about the results of the evaluation. 

"I really can’t thank you guys enough for the opportunities you have provided for us over this past couple of weeks. It’s had a remarkable impact with many students who now firmly want to study biology at a tertiary level after their experience with the electrophoresis." Colin Riddell, Holly Lodge Girls’ College

Hands on DNA statistics

Question of Taste workshop (evaluation forms from 787 students)

  • 96% felt it increased their confidence in them being able to understand this area of science 
  • 93% felt in increased their interest in science
  • 80% of students had never used this type of equipment before in school
  • 80% felt the workshop would help them with their subsequent school work
  • 80% felt it made them think that working in science might be interesting
  • 90% felt it was successful in increasing their understanding of PCR, electrophoresis, restriction enzymes and other elements.

Bacterial Evolution workshop (evaluation forms from 727 students)

  • 95% felt it increased their confidence in them being able to understand this area of science 
  • 90% felt in increased their interest in science 
  • Over 90% of students had never used this type of equipment before in school
  • 70% felt the workshop would help them with their subsequent school work
  • 74% felt it made them think that working in science might be interesting
  • 80-98% felt it was successful in increasing their understanding of electrophoresis, restriction enzymes and other elements.

The workshops attracted just over 1500 students, thus meeting (and slightly exceeding) the project’s overall target of 1500 students - 100 at 15 centres. 

Logos for UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, at Bristol, Life, Nowgen and the Wellcome Trust