Hands-on DNA: Exploring Evolution

http://www.sciencecentres.org.uk/projects/handsondna

Project aims:

Hands-on DNA’ was a national strategic project which aimed to make highly engaging, practical molecular biology experiences accessible to students in all parts of the UK. The project was led by The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) and was delivered in partnership with three organisations with considerable experience running innovative DNA programmes, namely At-Bristol, Centre for Life and Nowgen.

Objectives:

We wanted to train and equip science centres, museums and other organisations to delivery one of two curriculum-linked hands-on molecular biology workshops that explore evolution:

1. Consolidate the previously developed PCR workshop, A Question of Taste - for post-16 students.

2. Develop a new workshop for 14-16 year olds, suitable for 'starter' centres - Bacterial Evolution.

Summary of activity:

Over the 14 months of the main project the team selected, trained, equipped and supported 15 geographically spread UK centres to deliver excellent molecular biology workshops. The project also provided the necessary resources and project structure to assist centres to embed these high-quality molecular biology workshops as part of their on-going schools programme so they could continue their delivery after the funded phase of the project had been completed.
Overall, the new centres delivered cutting-edge molecular biology workshops to 1,707 students and 176 accompanying teachers in 15 UK locations in the four months following training. All 15 centres have expressed their intent to continue running these workshops for students into the future.
The centres selected to take part included science and discovery centres, museums, and universities all of whom had proven expertise in schools engagement and very different levels of equipment and experience in molecular biology. The needs of every centre were assessed and ASDC centrally purchased over 1500 individual items of equipment costing over £80,000 and delivered these in a bespoke manner to each centre.
The Hands-on DNA team ran training academies to train participants in how to use this equipment as well as how to set-up and deliver one of two high-end practical molecular biology workshops. In addition the project ran a ‘buddy support system’ to help new centres to set up labs and run these workshops in their centres. Training handbooks and training videos were also created along with a full and flexible marketing pack to support the centres.
Centres were trained in one of two practical workshops dependant on the existing skills of the centre. The first, ‘A Question of Taste’ is a pre-existing full-day curriculum linked workshop for Post-16 students where students isolate and test an aspect of their own DNA. The second workshop known as ‘Bacterial evolution’ was created specifically for this project and is two-hours long and targeted at 14-16 year olds.
Overall the project team trained and supported 37 staff members to successfully deliver these workshops in 15 centres in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 1514 students and 147 teachers across the UK took part in the project’s overarching evaluation study and the results have been impressive.
Evaluation results from Students aged 14-16 after a workshop
95% felt it increased their confidence in them being able to understand this area of science
89% felt it increased their interest in science
90% of students had never used this type of equipment before in school
74% felt it made them think that working in science might be interesting
And their teachers said…
100% felt that more workshops like this would increase students’ motivation to study science
85% felt that the workshop will have made them more likely to consider a career in science
100% of the teachers said that they would recommend the workshops to their colleagues
100% felt that the workshop inspired their students

Evaluation approach:

We worked with Ben Gammon to evaluate the initial impact of the workshops, as well as the project itself. Students and teachers who took part in the project were evaluated using questionnaires that they filled out after their workshop experience. Science centre staff were evaluated using a mixture of questionnaires post-training, and email surveys and telephone interviews after delivery of the workshops. The project team were also interviewed about their experiences.

The full evaluation report by Ben Gammon can be found here: http://sciencecentres.org.uk/projects/handsondna/Hands-on%20DNA%20Summary%20Evaluation%20Report.pdf

What went well:

1. Overall, the centres did a brilliant job, despite challenges, and this is evident from the amazingly positive feedback that we received about the project:

Evaluation results from Students aged 14-16 after a workshop

95% felt it increased their confidence in them being able to understand this area of science

89% felt it increased their interest in science

90% of students had never used this type of equipment before in school

74% felt it made them think that working in science might be interesting

And their teachers said…

100% felt that more workshops like this would increase students’ motivation to study science

85% felt that the workshop will have made them more likely to consider a career in science

100% of the teachers said that they would recommend the workshops to their colleagues

100% felt that the workshop inspired their students

2. The support system that was put in place, specifically the buddy system, was perceived to be invaluable in helping provide further information and reassurance to participants.

3. The project team organisations were utilised in such a way as to play to their strengths, and also to contribute their expertise to the work that others were carrying out.

What was learned:

1. The evaluation report showed that it was the feelings of those involved, that the project would have benefited from a more comfortable schedule. For example, during the evaluation participants often cited the relatively short lead in time, from training in October/November and receipt of equipment, to delivering enough workshops by April as being very challenging. Centres managed to meet these challenges on the whole, but it may have had knock-on effects, for example related to confidence of centres relating to technical aspects of the workshop.

2. Training should take account of the wide variation between the different needs of those attending; some need more support with practical aspects of set-up, whilst others need help with presenting the science. A recent survey with the centres involved to look in to the legacy of the project has shown that lack of technical confidence may be hindering continued delivery with the same enthusiasm and dedication as when the project team were on hand to lend support. Whilst wanting to encourage centres to work together as a network, it may be more beneficial to run parallel training sessions as part of training academies, to address the specific needs of different groups.

3. Never underestimate the value of face-to-face time with project team members when working collaboratively. Tasks that take half a day sat in the same room invariably take far longer via email and conference call. The same can be said for facilitating the network of expert centres. Many of the technical issues and assurances that less confident centres could do with were provided through the training resources produced, or could be provided by peers, but generally this was not sought until meeting face-to-face, e.g. at the National Meeting.

Top tips and advice for others

1. Think very carefully about the training needs of your participants - whilst not ideal - running parallel sessions can address specific needs of those you're working with - especially important when dealing with reasonably technical processes, as we were.

2. Incorporate plenty of set times for discussion and updates between project team members in your initial project plan - don't just assume you'll catch-up as and when. Setting a clear communication strategy up-front will ensure that most people can take part most often. Include plentiful opportunities for face-to-face meetings, especially when you need consensus through development (ie working collaboratively). Also the easiest way to avoid miscommunication and get through sticky situations quickest in order to reach agreement. Finite time definitely focusses the mind to a task. Additionally, if you want to facilitate the formation of a network, time needs to be allocated specifically to encouraging contact between all participants, rather than sub-groups forming.

3. In terms of the content of the workshop - students often cited valuing being treated like adults and being allowed to independently carry out experiments, especially using equipment that they only usually get to read about in textbooks but never use - clearly the success of this project for teachers was that it filled a niche that for the most part they could deliver due to lack of expertise and/or equipment - for something that is included in the curriculum, in all four nations.

About this project

Audiences:

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Project type:

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Started (approximately):

Feb 2011

Ended: (approximately)

April 2012

Tags for this project:

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About the contributor

Michaela Livingstone
UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC)

Coordinating national, strategic projects, focussed on the informal science learning sector - specifically amongst the membership of ASDC. Previously Hands-on DNA supported by the Wellcome Trust. Curr…

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