Inspiring the next generation

Building partnerships to promote understanding of the Human Cell Atlas in schools

Microscopic image of a cell in tones of pink, orange and purple

Cellular Generation and Phenotyping, Wellcome Sanger Institute 

Cellular Generation and Phenotyping, Wellcome Sanger Institute 

A picture of Anna Wilbrey-Clark - smiling with a red sweater in her home office.

Anna Wilbrey-Clark is a staff scientist working on the Human Cell Atlas.

Anna Wilbrey-Clark is a staff scientist working on the Human Cell Atlas.

I have always believed that I can do anything if I try and have been really shocked talking to teachers that certain groups of students don’t feel the same – some believe that there’s no way they could have a career in science. If we can convince even one of these students that they can achieve more that’s a big win.

I work on the Human Cell Atlas project, which is mapping all cell types in the human body, and I’ve always felt it’s important to explain what we are doing here. I worked with primary schools during my PhD at the Babraham Institute; an experience I very much enjoyed and wanted to continue. My husband is an art teacher in a school which is part of the Unity Schools Partnership. So we approached them to see if we could work together.

A picture of an assembly, with Anna Wilbrey-Clark at the top of the stage, giving a lecture to students
Two young students smile to camera with school uniforms showing a hand crafted helix they have created
A group of excited students smile whilst they try to craft an activity, which looks like they're creating a DNA helix
Item 1 of 3
A picture of an assembly, with Anna Wilbrey-Clark at the top of the stage, giving a lecture to students
Two young students smile to camera with school uniforms showing a hand crafted helix they have created
A group of excited students smile whilst they try to craft an activity, which looks like they're creating a DNA helix

The brilliant thing about the Unity Partnership is that it is comprised of 29 very diverse schools including 9 high schools - some from more affluent areas but others from underserved areas. By how the partnership is structured, it allows us to reach all their schools without having to speak to each of them independently; there’s one person we talk to, the Director of Science, and then the information filters down to the schools.

I started working with them in 2018 and, together with some equally enthusiastic colleagues, developed the WOW lessons. It was actually the head of science at the Partnership, Chris Allen, a great ally in this journey, who gave them the name. The idea was to design a set of lessons (run by researchers from Campus who have been great!) that would help the children explore different basic aspects of biology.

We focused on students aged 11 to 12, and we made sure that what they learned was complementary to the existing formal curriculum. In the session dedicated to cells, for example, the children got to put on lab coats, to look at descriptions of cells and match them with pictures. They then had to put each cell onto a cardboard human body, figuring out where they should go. They had lots of fun!

a lego illustration of a scientist in a white lab coat that is broken into pieces

Illustration by Little Inventors

Illustration by Little Inventors

Illustration showing a teacher pointing to a whiteboard that reads Human Cell Atlas, there are three children in chairs looking at the board.

Illustration by Little Inventors

Illustration by Little Inventors

Right now, I lead the education package for One Cell At A Time, a public engagement project with the Human Cell Atlas which is funded by Wellcome and curated by Suzy O'Hara. We identified school children as a primary target audience. Sarah Teichmann (Head of Cellular Genetics and co-Chair of the Human Cell Atlas) and I sat together to discuss some ideas on how we could shape the education package. With help of the Wellcome Connecting Science Public Engagement team and an external consultant, we developed a card game competition based on the project for secondary school students.

The competition, How to build a Human: Design a Card Game Challenge, was launched in January 2021 and it is aimed at students aged 11 to 14. In teams they have to design a card game based on the Human Cell Atlas. Its main point is for students to learn about the project as well as basic biological concepts. Within formal education, they already learn about cells and gene expression, therefore the Human Cell Atlas fits in really well with the curriculum at this key stage.

We’re working with a company called ‘Little Inventors’ who encourage young people to come up with invention ideas and then turn them into real things.  Most excitingly, the winning team of students will work with game design company Heayes Design, who will produce a limited run of their card game for distribution to participating schools. 

This all required plenty of preparation, especially in the current circumstances. We had to think how this could be delivered by educators both virtually and in the classroom, then we set up a web portal for schools to submit their entries to the competition. After that, an external panel will evaluate the entries before the successful proposal is manufactured as a professional card game. The idea is then to deliver to the other schools in the UK who have taken part in the competition.

There have been many challenges, of course, this is often the case when working with schools. Every school is different in how they want to drive the lessons and if they want them to be embedded in learning hours or in clubs after school. With the Human Cell Atlas school competition, we were initially thinking of launching the project with a two hour webinar. And the teachers came back to us with a “No way!” Some even said that they wanted to do this in tutor time, which are ten minute sessions. We had to remodel the whole launch! But that’s just how it is; at the end of the day, we need to be able to adapt to what they need.

Essentially, for me, going into schools is all about enthusing children about science and showing that it’s relevant to them. The challenges, the effort, it’s all worth it. We need to break down the black box around what scientists do and show that there is a huge variety of different professions in science aside from bench-based researchers and that we work in a highly multicultural environment. I have come to realise that communicating our work to the public is an important responsibility – we need their support and that starts with them understanding what we’re doing and why.

For me, it’s all about inspiring the next generations into science. If we want to have any impact in the future, it’s best to start at schools. I want to help students realise that, actually, scientists are real people and not smart Einsteins with funny hair; we’re just your everyday normal.

Logo of the Human Cell Atlas Public Engagement