This year – 2021 – has been a year of progress in overcoming the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on human evolution…
The Manchester Fly Facility maintains an objective-driven, long-term science communication initiative which started in 2011 and promotes the importance of fundamental biomedical research involving the fruit fly Drosophila. As part of this initiative, a team of 7 researchers undertook a very successful school visit reaching out to 8 schools and 160 students. Here I take this occasion to describe the logistics behind such an event, but also look back in time, to illustrate the step-wise developments that have led to the conceptual framework underpinning this visit. With this blog, we hope to provide some helpful ideas for readers who take an interest in science communication and education.
What is the Manchester Fly Facility and its science communication initiative?
The Manchester Fly Facility was set up in 2010 as a faculty hub for Drosophila research, providing infrastructure for fly husbandry and work, acting as a repository for fly research-specific tools and techniques, and to provide training in fly genetics for which we developed a popular teaching package (Roote & Prokop, 2013; Prokop, 2013).
In July 2011, we decided to take the opportunity of a Community Open Day at our faculty to showcase flies and fly research to the public. The day was a success with visitors and helped improve communication within the Manchester fly community. Most importantly, it set a development in motion that would grow into the internationally most prominent initiative for the communication, advocacy and teaching of Drosophila. As is detailed in our recent publication (Patel & Prokop, 2017), our initiative grew step-wise and is now multi-pronged, based on 6 different areas of engagement: university training, participation in science fairs, development of science exhibitions, development of educational videos/materials, school engagement, and the marketing of resources to teachers and members of the fly community. We have produced 8 journal publications, 11 online resources, 4 websites, and ~10 blog posts; a growing collection of over 40 pages of comments from across the world reflects the impact our initiative is having (LINK).
Fig. 1. Identifying marker mutations (A) is a simple activity liked by kids and grown-ups alike and can be used in different contexts: B) science fairs, C) school visits, D) school open days at our facility. Modified from Patel & Prokop, 2017.
Driving six parallel strands of engagement certainly involves a lot of effort, but it also offers great opportunities for constant quality improvement, in that new ideas in one engagement area often cross-fertilise other activities (Fig. 1). This trend is facilitated by having one overarching objective: to promote the awareness and acknowledgement of Drosophila research as an essential pillar in the discovery process of the biomedical sciences. These objectives closely link to a parallel advocacy campaign promoted by the British Society for Developmental Biology and The Company of Biologists raising awareness of Developmental Biology as a basic science discipline of enormous importance and impact (Maartens et al., 2018; Prokop, 2018). Such links between initiatives are in line with a model of communication in which researchers, societies, and organizations combine their various efforts into wider collaborative science communication networks with one common goal: to drive advocacy for basic science with far greater rigour and impact than could possibly be achieved in isolation (Prokop, 2017; Illingworth & Prokop, 2017). We therefore actively seek such links with societies or other well-established initiatives, such as DrosAfrica (Martín-Bermudo et al., 2017), TReND in Africa, or NC3Rs.
School engagement – a steep learning curve!
Of our six engagement areas, the work with schools has a specific objective setting: to bring Drosophila back into biology lessons – ideally as part of the UK’s school curriculum. As described elsewhere (Patel & Prokop, 2017), we work toward this goal by engaging with schools in different forms: (a) visiting schools for extracurricular days or science clubs, (b) inviting school classes into our laboratories, (c) organizing or presenting on teacher seminars, and (d) developing sample lessons for teachers. We started our first school engagement in November 2012 and have organized and/or participated in over 65 school visits and 15 CPD events since (LINK). During this period, major developments have taken place (for details see Box 1): we learned how to organize ourselves better and started to combine lesson contents with the school curriculum and to emphasize their relevance. We also recognized the power of providing supporting online materials, sharing our teaching resources and establishing true researcher-teacher collaboration and active school involvement (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. The website banner of our droso4schools initiative, set up to collaborate with schools and generate curriculum-relevant resources for teachers.
Box 1: Strategic improvement of school engagement – some lessons learned1) We quickly learned that we had to be well-prepared and -organized to be self-sufficient on school grounds, able to adapt flexibly to whatever conditions we are faced with (Patel & Prokop, 2017; see also main text).
2) We recognized that students show greater interest if we inspire them about science with topics that are part of their curriculum, i.e. help them to better understand examination-relevant aspects of biology (see comments in our evaluation document). In this way, we talk less about flies but rather engage with them, using Drosophila as an effective teaching tool rather than main subject of the event.
3) We realized that the qualities of Drosophila as a teaching tool are unique: it is the organism with the conceptually best understood biology and research strengths in many curriculum-relevant areas, providing many opportunities to carry out micro-experiments in classrooms or extended experiments in dedicated laboratory workshops. In addition, it is cheap and easy to keep in schools, ideal to bring real animals back into biology lessons (for more detail see Prokop, 2015).
4) Contents presented with flies should ideally be linked back to relevant applications in areas of disease-related research or the understanding of homologous phenomena in higher animals or humans; in this way, the translational power of fly research comes naturally to students and likely leaves a more lasting impact.
5) We realised the power of developing parallel online resources, so that students can re-live or even revise learned contents, or prepare for our visits, for example by studying the “Why fly?” page (LINK).
6) School outreach tends to restrict to local schools and limited numbers of pupils, making it difficult to justify the time invested and sustain the initiative. Real opportunities to extend the reach to national or international levels arise from making school resources accessible online. We therefore used the free and citable online platform figshare.com to openly share our PowerPoints and adjunct support materials which usually include logistics documents, experimental instructions, risk assessments, activity sheets and films (Prokop & Patel, 2016).
7) An alternative strategy to spread the use of Drosophila as a teaching tool is to get teachers interested in using some of our ideas or resources in their own teaching lessons. Implementing this strategy requires a deeper understanding of school realities, including the time constrains and interests of teachers, the imperative nature of the curriculum and the typical modalities of school teaching. To bridge this fundamental knowledge gap, we founded the droso4schools initiative (Patel et al., 2017; Harbottle et al., 2015). In a nutshell, we sent placement students for several months as teaching assistants into partner schools to establish true collaborations with teachers and shape the content and style of our presentations and adjunct materials, to make them school-compatible. In parallel, we developed the droso4schools website on which we explain the taught contents in simple terms, as a helpful resource for lesson preparation, revision or homework tasks (LINK). Furthermore, we launched a further online repository where teachers can download our lesson resources for free (Prokop & Patel, 2015).
Although we have come a long way, the final objective of establishing Drosophilaas a teaching tool in the UK’s school curriculum is still to be achieved, and additional efforts employing different strategies are required and underway. But we can now build on a sound foundation: we clearly showcase how flies can be used in curricular biology lessons and can provide evidence for their success with teachers and students alike (LINK). As a further positive outcome, many comments we receive demonstrate that our resources are in worldwide use, as is nicely illustrated by the initiative taken by Ana Fernández-Miñán (CABD, Sevilla) who translated some of our lessons into Spanish (free for download; Prokop & Patel, 2015). Furthermore, our collaboration with Firzan Nainu in the context of the “Fly Indonesia” initiative has led to the translation of some of our droso4school web resources into Indonesian (more are underway; LINK), and we have just started a collaboration with the PhD student Rashidatu Abdulazeez (Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria) and Marta Vicente-Crespo (St. Augustine International Univ., Uganda) at DrosAfrica, aiming to establish an impactful school outreach project in Nigeria.
A recent example: a visit to Scarisbrick Hall School
It would be wrong to assume that once international impact has been achieved, the local school engagement can be side-lined. Local schools remain extremely valuable partners, allowing us to stay in contact and collaborate with teachers to ensure mutuality of our engagement; and the visit of schools provides unique opportunities to try out new or improved strategies or resources, to gather additional evidence, and to spread the word within the teacher community. But they need careful planning to ensure success. As an example, I briefly describe here the planning behind a school visit that took place on the 4thof July 2018 at Scarisbrick Hall School near Wigan in Lancashire.
Fig. 3. Scenes from the CPD event in January 2018 (see also Blackburn, 2018).
The visit was initiated through our Faculty’s links to Scarisbrick Hall, and it was mutually agreed that these links would be extended to a network of schools in the area (kindly woven by Claire Winstanley, head of the school’s science department), so that we would increase the reach and impact of our collaboration. As starting point, a number of teachers from those schools attended a day-long CPD event we organised in January 2018, which introduced to the philosophy behind the droso4schools initiative, our various teaching resources, and the available infrastructure and support we provide (Fig. 3; Blackburn, 2018). On this basis, it was agreed to have a large student intake at GCSE/A-level (ages 14-17) and cover a range of topics: 160 students from 8 schools would rotate through four parallel 25 minute-long classes on the topics of (A) nervous system, (B) ageing/neurodegeneration/statistics, (C) evolution/genetics and (D) enzymes (available at Prokop & Patel, 2016); 80 students would participate in a morning and 80 in an afternoon session, and the schools would take care of the logistically challenging transport of students between schools.
Fig. 4. Our team before and after the event. In the left image from left to right: Chiara Francavilla, Andreas Prokop, Eemaan Memon, Megan Chastney, Sanjai Patel, Ryan West, Joanne Sharpe.
In preparation of the event, we asked the Manchester research community for volunteers and got together a team of 10. To optimise our lessons and test new ideas gathered from other events during the last months, I thoroughly revised our various teaching resources and updated them accordingly (available at Prokop & Patel, 2016). Sanjai Patel (manager of the Manchester Fly Facility) arranged the bus travel and organised the required fly stocks, materials and equipment, with strong support by Carol Fan (one of the team members) and capitalising on our continuously updated logistics document (available at Prokop & Patel, 2016).
A week ahead of our visit, the whole team came together for a two hour preparation session in which we went through each lesson in great detail, discussing contents, styles of presentation and practical details of the in-built activities. The day before the event, each sub-team packed the required materials for their own classes to ensure independent and frictionless setting-up at the school site.
Fig. 5. Setting up (left) and teaching (right) of the climbing assay lesson: old flies are tested in their climbing performance against young flies (inset on the right) to then perform statistics on the obtained data and discuss ageing/neurodegeneration research in Drosophila (for details see our webpage).
These careful preparations gave us the flexibility to deal with some unexpected problems. For example, during the last two days before the event, three members had to cancel reducing our team to 7 (Fig. 4); sub-teams needed to be re-arranged on short notice, which was enormously facilitated by the joined preparation session from a few days before. On the day, our bus came an hour late, greatly impacting on our tight schedule. Over the phone, we swiftly agreed with the school to skip one of the four rotations in the morning session, so that students would miss out on one class in a staggered fashion, still able to discuss contents with classmates from parallel groups. The delayed arrival time also significantly reduced our time for setting-up (Fig.5), but it came in handy that everybody had packed their own boxes and that teachers had been assigned to support us. In this context, I would like to thank Scarisbrick Hall School for outstanding support and hospitality, for which we are most grateful and which made the day even more enjoyable!
Fig. 6. Our classes are highly interactive and all contain micro-experiments. Examples shown are: A) using opto-genetics to induce epilepsy-like seizures [LINK]; B) identifying genetic marker mutations [LINK]; C) performing dissections of maggots and colour reactions to demonstrate enzymatic activity [LINK]; D) performing the climbing assay followed by data analysis and statistics [LINK]. Experimental instructions available at Prokop & Patel (2016).
The teaching of classes strictly followed the planned procedures (Fig. 6), leaving little time to rest during the two sessions, with only one break of half an hour in-between. But, thanks to the good preparation, outstanding school support and dedication of the entire team, it worked frictionless. This said, there always are some unexpected technical problems: flies failed to display the expected attraction to our UV lamp in a phototaxis experiment and, due to unusually hot weather, the temperature-sensitive shibireflies were severely immobile in the afternoon neuro session. To avoid these problems on future events, solutions were discussed and noted down in the logistics document during our debriefing session.
In sum, the efforts paid off: all classes were a great success, much praised by students and teachers alike, as clearly documented by comments and statistics in the detailed evaluation document (Fig. 7). Whilst these data speak for themselves, I would like to briefly highlightthat our visit appears to have turned round the majority of students from knowing nothing about flies to supporting their use in research but also as suitable teaching tools; especially the broad opportunities to perform meaningful and helpful in-class experiments were pointed out repeatedly. The few who were opposed did not necessarily dislike the event, but had ethical reservations about experimentation with living organisms – an ongoing debate that requires wider discussion in society, as highlighted also by a recent BBC program about this topic (LINK).
The fact that Scarisbrick Hall School offered to act as a regional hub, made it possible to reach out to large numbers of students and schools in one single day – which hopefully had an impact and helped us to form further school alliances around Manchester!
Fig. 7. Evaluation of the Scarisbrick Hall School event. For further details see our evaluation document.
Some readers might question this kind of engagement and wonder why anybody would sacrifice valuable time for something that seems merely altruistic. First of all, I would argue that in the current political climate where fundamental biomedical research is in dire straits (e.g. Jones & Wilsdon, 2018), we all should be prepared to communicate the importance of our research; small contributions by many can build up to the societal impact we need (Prokop, 2017; Illingworth & Prokop, 2017; LINK). Secondly, for those who take a greater interest and work in an institution that is supportive, public engagement offers important opportunities. These opportunities range from being recognised and promoted for achievements, to making experiences in science communication or education that take you in interesting alternative professional career directions. Thirdly, serious public communication of our research usually influences the way we do it and how we sell it in publications and grant applications. To put it bluntly: “If you cannot explain your science and its importance [to a member of the public], you either have not thought hard enough and need to refine your explanations, or you are doing the wrong thing and should consider changes in your research direction!” (Prokop, 2017).
Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.
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