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Making the most of COVID-19 restrictions to deliver successful outreach projects

Dr Helga D Bartels-Hardege, Senior Lecturer, Director of Foundation Year Studies, Hull University

Background

Biology in Education is a 40-credit module offered to final year students in the Biological and Marine Sciences Department. It involves students taking weekly placements at local primary and secondary schools throughout the academic year. The way in which the module would regularly be assessed is by a number of assignments, with the main piece being a report on a lesson that had been taught independently by the student.

However, because of the pandemic, in-person placements were not possible during the most recent academic year. Instead, the students acted as demonstrators in online workshops for the module “Group Challenge”, where Foundation Year students produce a small piece of research in groups of 5 – 7 members. The final year students helped with experimental design, data analysis and the creation of the project poster. This worked well and covered most of the module learning outcomes, however, an independently taught lesson was not possible. As an alternative it was decided, in collaboration with the students on the module, to create online Outreach Projects for an age group of their choice, where students bring their favourite Biology topic into the classroom.

Encouraging undergraduate final year students to plan and deliver their own Outreach Project based on a topic that they themselves are enthusiastic about, is an alternative to creating time consuming projects by academic staff themselves (Clark et al. 2016). Early exposure to “real” science and “real” scientist is important especially for younger school pupils (DeWitt et al., 2013). University students provide great role models for science; they are seen as more approachable than what the public expects from a scientist (Mackay et al, 2020) and their ability to communicate scientific concepts successfully is a skill highly valued by employers (STEM, 2018).

The students planned a variety of Outreach Projects mostly on ecologically important topics, like Climate Change, Endangered Species and Plastic Pollution, but also covered Human Biology (The Importance of Vitamins) or more basic biological concepts (Classification of Species).

Timeline of the project

  • Formative assessment: Application for an Outreach Project based on the Activity Funding Request form from the Access, Funding & Support Office.
  • A survey was created and distributed for teachers about their attitude towards Outreach Projects.
  • Contact was made with primary and secondary schools presenting them with a choice of topics. The Outreach Project applications were sent to the schools.
  • Dates, times and mode of online delivery was discussed collaboratively between the school teacher and the student independently.
  • Summative assessment: a report about the Outreach Project, based on guidance from the Access, Funding & Support Office for evaluation of widening participation activities.
HBH_posters-photo
Posters produced by year 4 children at Thriplow Church of England Primary School on Plastic Pollution and Coral Reefs

Outcome

All schools we contacted were enthusiastic about the idea and embraced the opportunity to have a talk/activity led by a subject specialist. All students on the module were successful in delivering a Project to their chosen age group and about their chosen topic. Schools that took part were Newland St John Church of England Academy, Thriplow Church of England Primary School and Newland School for Girls. Altogether 9 different online Outreach Projects were delivered, benefitting around 200 young people at primary and secondary level.

Feedback from teachers was positive throughout, with encouraging and constructive comments for the students:

“After today’s session ……. 50% of the class were interested in becoming a Zoologist in the future.”
“It was a success due to the knowledge which was gained, by both the students and teachers”
“The children enjoyed themselves and created some beautiful posters.”
“The children were really enthusiastic and came away wanting to know more”
“The girls were very taken with you and I think you’ve encouraged a few of them to take more of an interest in science.”

The young people enjoyed themselves, new knowledge and new enthusiasm for science and the environment was gained. One of the participating undergraduate students wrote:

“Personally, I found the most beneficial part of the module to my own development was my Outreach Project, teaching a whole class for an hour with materials I created was a brand-new challenge and one that I feel has greatly increased my confidence as well as taught me about different skills that I can use when teaching.”

Starting off as a problem, the change of assessment in this module became an opportunity to create something that did not just bring great benefit to the pupils, teachers and students individually, but was also important to strengthen the links between Hull University and schools in the area.

References

Clark, G. et al. (2016) Science Educational Outreach Programs that Benefit Students and Scientists. PLoS biology, 14(2), p. E1002368.

DeWitt J, Archer L, Osborne J., (2013) Nerdy, brainy and normal: Children’s and parents’ constructions of those who are highly engaged with science. Res Sci Educ 43:1455–1476.

Mackay, S.M., Tan, E.W. and Warren, D.S. (2020) Developing a new generation of scientist communicators through effective public outreach. Communications Chemistry, 3(1), pp.1-9.

Stem.org.uk (2018) Why outreach completes your degree [Accessed 9 April 2021]

Photo by Mohamed Hassan on Pixabay

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