Learning in Lockdown

How the pandemic changed the way we work with schools

Em is white and has short brown hair and is wearing glasses, a red top and denim dungarees and is smiling at the camera

Em Dixon is Education and Learning Officer at Wellcome Connecting Science

Em Dixon is Education and Learning Officer at Wellcome Connecting Science

Our Education and Learning programme in Wellcome Connecting Science is dedicated to providing learning opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds. Our aim is to help students to engage with topics around genomics in a creative way and to give them an opportunity to learn outside of the classroom. We usually have around 35 schools visit the Wellcome Genome Campus throughout any given year, and we also support Campus staff to travel to schools to do talks and activities. Staff from across the whole of Campus have gotten involved by giving talks, running interactive activities and answering questions about their work and career paths.

Adapting to a new normal

When the pandemic led to school closures and lockdowns, we had no choice but to suspend our school visits. During this difficult time, we realised that schools and students could still benefit from our support, resources and expertise. We had to quickly adapt and discover ways that we could still deliver our education programme using remote learning methods. 

We decided that the best thing to do would be to create an interactive, online learning programme to keep up the conversation and continue to provide education opportunities around genomics. We particularly wanted to focus on the subjects that schools and students had told us were of most interest to them. We combed the feedback that teachers had given us from previous visits and matched this with topics covered by work of the Wellcome Sanger Institute and EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). 

Using this information, we created ‘Genomics Lite’. This was a series of webinars where one topic in genomics was explored from four different angles. These angles were the key areas that students and teachers had found useful during visits to Campus: the applications of genomics, laboratory techniques, ethical and societal considerations of genomics, and career opportunities. 

We first ran a pilot series in November and December 2020, which focused on the Human Genome Project. We decided to try and run the talks on Tuesday lunchtimes and after school on Thursdays. This gave options for students to join at school or at home, as we were aware that some students might struggle to connect from home. For this starting point, we only offered the opportunity to local schools who we already had good relationships with. During the pilot, we found that the lunchtime slot was too tricky to coordinate between different schools’ timetables and so decided that Thursdays after school would be the most effective and useful timeslot. 

The pilot showed that the programme had the potential to succeed. So we developed another set of talks exploring infectious disease, human genetic variation, cancer research, and biodiversity and evolution. These talks ran between 4.30 pm and 5.30 pm on Thursdays across a block of four weeks. We ran one series of talks per half term. Along with the main talks we also provided learning packs, where each series came with a linked series of extra resources so that the students could continue their learning in their own time.

A still from a YouTube video titled "Getting the Human Genome Project off the ground". Karen is a white woman with short grey hair and wears glasses and appears in a video in the top right hand corner

Karen McLaren from the Wellcome Sanger Institute giving the first talk about the Human Genome Project

Karen McLaren from the Wellcome Sanger Institute giving the first talk about the Human Genome Project

Some purple stained cells are visible in the background. Across the image it says "genomics lite cancer research series"
The image has colourful stripes representing chromosomes in the background. The text says "genomics life human genetic variation series"
The background has several colourful circles and lines representing an evolutionary tree. The text says "genomics lite biodiversity and evolution series"
An image of three red viruses can be seen in the background. The text says "genomics lite infectious disease series"
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Some purple stained cells are visible in the background. Across the image it says "genomics lite cancer research series"
The image has colourful stripes representing chromosomes in the background. The text says "genomics life human genetic variation series"
The background has several colourful circles and lines representing an evolutionary tree. The text says "genomics lite biodiversity and evolution series"
An image of three red viruses can be seen in the background. The text says "genomics lite infectious disease series"
Alistair is seen in the top right hand corner - he is a white man with short brown hair and is wearing a red jumper. He is talking about a slide on the screen that says 'Neural Networks'

Alistair Droop giving his talk on The Big Questions in Cancer Research

Alistair Droop giving his talk on The Big Questions in Cancer Research

Carla is in a small window in the top right hand corner. She is a white woman with shoulder length brown hair and is wearing a brown top. Her slide says "Coming back to research ... returning to science fellowship"

Carla Jones giving her talk on Career Pathways

Carla Jones giving her talk on Career Pathways

Involving the Campus

One of the main things we knew we wanted from Genomics Lite was for researchers and experts in genomics to be a key part of the programme. For the pilot, we approached several colleagues across the Campus who we knew were confident speakers and had a lot of experience with schools. As we developed the programme, we opened up the opportunity to the wider Campus community through a call for speakers in the fortnightly Public Engagement bulletin. Many speakers hadn't given an online talk before so we gave them bespoke support to create their talks and slides.

The staff who were involved had a really positive experience. Doing it online helped to save time as there was no need to travel to a school. The talks taking place in the evening meant it was easier to fit around the work day. For those who were less experienced in  public engagement, doing the talk via a webinar felt like a more gentle introduction to engaging with students, especially as the audience couldn’t be seen. This made it feel less intimidating.

"You guys are very kind. All these comments brought a smile to my face, thank you!"
Genomics Lite speaker
"Thanks for the chance to speak – I enjoyed it enormously, and do let me know if you ever need me to talk again"
Genomics Lite speaker

Reaching high

Genomics Lite has proven to be an amazing success. We got the word out through a combination of social media, using Eventbrite and approaching the schools on our contact list. We ended up reaching nearly 2,000 students and teachers. Our largest audience was in early 2021, when the third lockdown in England was in force. 

We were also delighted that nearly 75% of the students attending from the UK were from state schools and 20% came from schools in more deprived areas. This is important to us because a core aim of our education programme is to reach students at these schools, who often have lower science capital and less access to science and scientists.

A really unexpected benefit of the programme was its international reach. We had people from 47 countries join the webinars. We hadn’t set out to specifically make it appealing to an international audience as it was based on the UK curriculum, but we were thrilled that so many people were finding the talks and were able to take part.

A map of the world with many countries highlighted in green to show where participants came from. Green countries include the UK with 1392 attendees, the USA with 127, India with 30 and Brazil 13.

A map showing where our Genomics Lite participants came from

A map showing where our Genomics Lite participants came from

Learning lessons

There are some obvious benefits and challenges to running these sorts of sessions online. One benefit was that it was less time consuming than face to face sessions for the Campus staff taking part. We were also able to reach many more students than we could have done using our in-person activities. However, learning via screen can be difficult, especially as the students can’t be seen for safeguarding reasons. We had to make sure that we kept putting in points of  interaction such as polls and question and answer sections to keep them engaged, to prompt discussion, and to stop ‘Zoom fatigue’ from setting in.

A new normal

Many habits and adaptations that were made necessary due to the lockdown are now becoming part of everyday life. Our education programme is no exception. We are really glad that we have been able to restart hosting student visits on Campus. While there are definitely advantages to having these real life interactions, we are also going to continue providing online education opportunities through Genomics Lite. However, we have decided to reduce the sessions to once a month now the students are back at school. One of the reasons that we’ve decided to continue the programme is that we were able to reach so many more young people in the UK and from all over the world that we couldn’t have done before and we would like to continue to do this. We’re so pleased that it’s become such a useful learning tool for such a diverse audience. 

We’d love to have staff from across the Campus to take part and share their experience and expertise with students. If you would like to be part of Genomics Lite or our on-campus visits, please drop us an email at education@wellcomeconnectingscience.org

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You can watch all of the Genomics Lite sessions on the Public Engagement team's YouTube channel