Case study – Bioinformatics in Schools

Stevie Anne Bain, University of Edinburgh, Public Engagement Grant 2020

“Our Bioinformatics in Schools project designs and delivers curriculum-linked, hands-on bioinformatics workshops for secondary school biology classes.  Bioinformatics – a discipline combining aspects of biology, computing, mathematics and statistics – is now an essential element of modern biology.  We use case studies
based on DNA sequences to highlight its importance in topics such as genetics and evolutionary biology.  Additionally, our senior level workshop uses Raspberry Pi computers to introduce pupils and teachers to coding.

Over the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that we cannot conduct our school visits as we normally would.  However, we consider public engagement with genetics to be crucial in the fight against misinformation and inequality.  Therefore, we used our Genetics Society Public Engagement Award to develop an online bioinformatics workshop for teachers.  This provided an opportunity for teachers to engage with researchers and get hands-on experience of bioinformatics. Our workshops took place after the school day to avoid any disruption to school timetables.  To support this interactive online workshop, we sent each participant a Bioinformatics in Schools Resource Package containing handouts for all our activities, a bioinformatics textbook and a complete Raspberry Pi kit preloaded with our workshop materials.  This allowed teachers to fully participate in all activities during the workshop and then use our educational materials with their own classes.

We piloted this teacher workshop at the Midlothian Science Festival in October 2020 and have since held events for teachers across Scotland. So far, we have reached 57 teachers and 54 schools.  A benefit of our online format is increased ease of participation, particularly for teachers in remote locations such as the Highlands and Islands.  In addition to presenting our own resources, we have also invited researchers with bioinformatics expertise to present case studies of their research.  One such case study involved the use of sequencing to investigate SARS-CoV2 genome evolution.  In these workshops, teachers have the opportunity to ask questions and share their experiences with their peers and with researchers.  This, in turn, allows us to further develop our resources to maximise their benefits for schools. Positive teacher feedback showed that these workshops were a great success:

“I thought it was very exciting because we were able to investigate something.”
“Fantastic, relevant, interesting, fun and pitched at the perfect level.”

This online workshop and accompanying resource package have allowed us to reach a large number of teachers across the country during difficult times.  We are excited to continue with our program of online public engagement and thank the Genetics Society for their vital contribution.”

Read also:
“Bringing bioinformatics to schools with the 4273pi project”, The University of Edinburgh
“Bringing bioinformatics to schools with the 4273pi project”PLOS Computational Biology