Inspiring the next generation of scientists with hands-on-activities and lab tours

How would a 10-year old (year 6) school child describe their experience in a science-based workshop at the University of Liverpool? Would they be more or less interested in science and in becoming a scientist after the visit?

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Inspiring, educational, awesome, factual, exhilarating, incredible, epic, fab….”

It was like science heaven!”

These are some of the comments from school children who attended a practical science workshop at the University of Liverpool in Nov ’17 and Jan’18.

How did the children have the opportunity to visit the University?

I (Valentina) recently organised a series of school visits from Liverpool primary schools to the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease (IACD), for a “Junior Science Lab”. The theme was “The Giant Cardiovascular System”, with demonstration of entertaining models and hands-on-activities, to learn about physiology of blood cells and circulation, how exercise help preserving a healthy cardiovascular system, avoiding clotting, and hearing about eye and brain anatomy.

The children, as well as the staff involved in organising the activities, gained so much during young public engagement. The children enjoyed the practical activities the most, such as recreating blood flow using entertaining soft toys, sports exercises and measurement of heart rate, microscopy examination of tissue sections and cells in the lab. Of the children who visited the institute, only between 52-56% had a chance to meet a “real scientist” before the visit.

The children loved the lab tour, wearing lab coats (which, by the way, where purchased by the institute at the appropriate size!) and colourful gloves. They have seen incubators and plastic ware used to keep cells alive outside our body. Most of the learning outcomes were actually reported correctly, in their own words, in the questionnaire filled at the end of the visit.

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The main take home messages from the visit were about the importance of preserving a healthy cardiovascular system with regular exercise and healthy diet. Disease conditions, such as diabetes and clotting, can affect our vision and respiratory system.

Colleagues from the institute had fun in explaining their work to children, and most of them were involved for the first time in science dissemination. All these experiences will help them strengthening their communication skills and identify those areas of research which mostly interest the young public.

How was the plastic model designed?

Here there is some more information about the giant plastic model of cardiovascular system. I wanted to assemble a giant model, to entertain kids and public with large scale tools and colourful toys…. for them to being able to see inside the body!

When I firstly designed the model of cardiovascular system used for the children activity, I thought was fairly simple to find a 10 m long and 10 cm wide plastic flexible tube. It turns out to be not so easy, and the hose available was from dust extraction companies! Not bad, as the company made them transparent (for technical reasons) and it simply represented the best tool to show the kids inside blood vessels.

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Jim, from the institute workshop, helped me a lot assembling the pieces and adapting the model for educational purposes. Many other colleagues, (Amu, Bryan, Conor, Laura, Pilar, Fiona, Lina, Shah….) contributed to the success of the workshop event by providing experience with the model or educational skills on the day.

Let the children express themselves as a learning process

Science is beautiful; the way in which you present fairly complex concepts on how the body works to children will significantly impact on their future interests. I, together with other colleagues, decided to organise an arts and crafts workshop at the end of the hands-on-activities and lab tour, to explain the things that the children enjoyed mostly from the day.

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They created science based works of art represent body parts models, such as eye balls, retinal cells, brain sections, veins and fibrin clots… all crafted by using polysterene spheres, coloured paper and pens, plasticine, glitter, plastic slides.

Think about a different education, where every child is able to access learning resources such as plastic models of body parts, crafting material to recreate what they have learned in a large scale (i.e. a microscopy slide with coloured paper representing “bits” of human tissue on it). Most of the teachers accompanying the children said our crafting workshop was an amazing opportunity for the children, who don’t often have the tools, time and resources to be involved in creative activities.

We, as scientists, have an amazing opportunity to help those children to retain their unconditioned enthusiasm about learning!

A Montessori-inspired method of education

Montessori is a well-known method of education, which is based on leaving the child leading their own learning process. Small group activities make them confident learners, explorers and more interested in engagement. Teachers would be able to offer children the most appropriate tools, depending on their age and special needs, to allow the children self-directing the activities. Ideally, by working in groups and making creative choices in the learning process, this approach will help them developing a collaborative play.

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I loved seeing the children so excited about learning, so happy about wearing colourful gloves, and so creative in crafting models whom they absolutely wanted to show parents and friends. That spontaneous passion for learning is a unique gift we all have at that age, and we should better “safeguard” when growing up.

Within our context we ask the children to recreate, in a scale most appropriate to their learning steps, processes of how human body works. By developing their own model of how the body works, they will become aware of healthy life style, creative students and, potentially, the next generation of scientists.

Valentina Barrera, early career researcher.

public outreach

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