The Polymerase Chain Reaction
‘The Polymerase Chain Reaction’ workshop was initially designed for Advanced High students when Glasgow Science Centre and the University of Glasgow identified this as a gap in the teaching of molecular biology. Working in partnership with the Glasgow Science Centre, the workshop is designed to give practical hands-on experience to school pupils who will have the opportunity to learn modern molecular biology techniques. The day includes talks where the students can discuss ethical implications of DNA sequencing and modern biological technology; see digital animations on DNA; try out practice based experiments that would otherwise not be able to be carried out in the classroom; and a career talk, which encourages students to think seriously about a career in this field. The workshop often sells out very quickly and has a lot positive feedback from both students and teachers, which provides evidence for the success of these workshops. In addition, the method has now been adapted by Learning and Teaching Scotland. This is because the workshop is mutually beneficial for both schools and the university. The workshop provides the students with a hands-on learning experience outside of the classroom, as well as an opportunity for the Glasgow Science Centre and scientists to work together sharing their skill set to produce an experience that is in line with the needs of the school curriculum.
The key to the success of this project, which is now in its eighth year, is the high facilitator to student ratio as this demonstrates the variety and level of roles in an academic research lab. There are now plans to expand the workshop to include many more students, but David Bhella is keen to maintain a high facilitator-student ratio, which in turns gives the facilitators experience of working with a non-academic audience. Part of the reason for the expansion is that the technology has moved from being part of the Advanced Higher curriculum to the Higher curriculum. This means that there is more demand for students to get involved and the workshop organisers are responding to that demand. There are plans for the workshop to move from the Glasgow Science Centre to the Boyd Orr building on campus, which will allow for a high student intake and will give the students experience of working in the university environment.
These public engagement activities are valuable for everyone involved, especially as it is becoming more recognised within academia. However, constraints on time, particularly as academics become more senior in their field, is an issue when it comes to creating and facilitating public engagement projects. This means that senior academics often move into more of a mentoring role rather than developing their own public engagement projects.
However, activities such as the ‘The Polymerase Chain Reaction’, which focus on using practical tools, can help scientists to become better communicators particularly with the younger generations. The process-oriented, practise driven workshops is what inspires the students to become the next generation of STEMM practitioners.