Authentic Biology in schools – 5 years down the line
The MBP2 project put real scientific research in the hands of A-level students at a school in Kent. Five years later and the initiative has spread. With a full symposium of student scientists having just taken place in December, the man behind it, David Colthurst, reflects.
Five years ago, I made an application to the Wellcome Trust for a People Award. I had the idea that I could establish a novel research programme into multiple sclerosis in a secondary school, where the work would be carried out by Sixth Form students guided by academics from the Biosciences Department of their local university. Pretty insane really, but remarkably, the Wellcome Trust agreed to fund this venture and the Myelin Basic Protein Project (MBP2) was born.
From the outset, this was a very personal project. My wife had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a few months earlier. I had wondered if I would be able to combine my experience of 15 years as a research biochemist and 15 years as a science teacher to carry out novel research into a protein implicated in the development of MS. Other organisations had made it very clear that they could and would not support this type of activity in a school – the Trust were very supportive from my first contact with them.
The award allowed us to purchase laboratory equipment and quickly set up some fairly sophisticated DNA and protein analysis techniques in the school, the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury. This was only made possible by the help and support of the School of Biosciences at the University of Kent. My former PhD supervisor, Professor Mick Tuite, was the main driver behind this. He enlisted several post-grads and postdocs and between them they provided numerous protocols and ran a workshop at the University to teach DNA and protein techniques to a dozen or so of our students. These students then came back to school and were able to repeat the experiments in our laboratories.
We divided the research project into six topics and these students became our Team Leaders, each responsible for running their aspect of the research project. We had a launch day in December of that first year, where 50 of our students spent the whole day in the school labs learning these new techniques from the team leaders with the University staff guiding the process, acting as demonstrators, very much as they would in an undergraduate practical at the University.
Our model was to have three of these ‘collapsed curriculum’ days each year and that students would use their study periods (formerly known as free periods!) to come to the lab and work on the project as their timetable allowed. The initial People Award was for two years and we received an extension to this award to help us run a stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. It also allowed us to buy extra equipment to enable me to run a DNA workshop for local schools where their sixth form students come into our school and run agarose gels and set up PCR reactions as well as hearing about the MBP2 project.
We were fortunate to achieve a second People Award to extend the MBP2 project into a third year and the number of students involved grew to over 100. We were very keen to keep the project running but we also wanted to see if we could spread our model of schools and universities working together in this way to other areas. Once again, the Wellcome Trust staff were very encouraging and helpful in guiding us through the application process for a much larger grant, a Society Award.
This proved to be a very nerve-wracking process, culminating in a presentation to the Award committee – ten minutes to make our pitch and then 10 minutes of grilling by the committee as they sought to find out if our plans were achievable and robust. A couple of days later I received a phone call to confirm that we had in fact been successful and Authentic Biology was born.
Authentic Biology involves four new schools and their university partners. Each is establishing their own research projects and it has been very heartening to see the schools selecting projects that have a deep resonance with the students. For example, the St Paul’s Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets, London, have devised a project to examine the causes of diabetes among their local population who are mainly of Bangladeshi origin. The Tapton School in Sheffield are working with the University of Sheffield to look at genes that might be linked to heart disease and some of them may be Yorkshire-specific.
Looking back over the past five years, I am really proud of the students and staff involved in what is now a truly national project. In my own school, all of the biology teaching staff and our biology technician are involved in MBP2, they all lead teams in the project and they have all had to learn new techniques that have stretched and extended their knowledge of modern genetic techniques and protein biochemistry. We are all are now far more comfortable teaching these areas of the curriculum since we are using them on a regular basis and applying them to genuine research. In terms of continuing professional development, it has been a huge learning curve. Most of us left university more than 15 years ago and technology has moved on dramatically since then but we are now up to speed with some of the most cutting-edge techniques. We always got on really well as a department and had good working relationships with our students, but now we all have a strong common goal in the project and there is a real sense of camaraderie.
We have developed a really close working relationship with well over a dozen research scientists from the University of Kent, ranging from professors to postgraduate students, some of whom have been involved with the project from its first inception. We have attended meetings and lectures at the University and our students have presented their work at FIRE-Bio (Forum for Innovation, Research and Enterprise in Biosciences) addressing an audience of more than 70 scientists from the University of Kent School of Biosciences. The research at the school has progressed to the point where we hope to be able to publish our results in a peer reviewed journal. My ambition is to have every student from Simon Langton Grammar School who has been involved in the project credited as an author – well over 300 (along with all of the University staff as well of course!).
The project has had a dramatic impact on the numbers of students studying biology in the school. When the project started, we had 90 students in total studying AS and A2 biology and at that time, we had 50 students involved in MBP2. We now have 150 students at AS and 50 at A2 – of these 170 are involved in the project, we anticipate that these numbers will be even higher next year.
As a school, 65 per cent of our students go on to study STEM-based subjects at university – the national average is 17 per cent. One pleasing aspect is that our biology students are now making a much wider and more informed choice in their degree courses. They are now choosing biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, natural sciences as well as medicine and veterinary science.
Our students have worked really closely with the Kent Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre, which is adjacent to our school grounds. They carry out volunteer work and have organised fundraising events to support the Centre, and it gives them a much clearer understanding of the issues that face people with MS. In a new twist, I have signed up for the Great Southern Run in October of this year and hope to run 10 miles to raise money for the Centre. That may not sound too impressive, but I have never run in my life before – I am hoping that the ripe old age of 52 is not too old to start!
With the start of Authentic Biology, it has been fascinating to see how the different schools and universities have approached the opportunity to carry out their own unique research projects. This culminated in my personal highlight of last year: the inaugural Authentic Biology Symposium. Held at Queen Mary, University of London, all five schools presented their work to one another in lectures and in a poster session. There were also keynote lectures from senior academics and a question and answer session where students had the opportunity to ask academics about their jobs and what motivated them to be research scientists.
It was fantastic to see so many school students fired up about complex biomedical issues. They were confident and authoritative in their presentations and conversations and were excellent ambassadors for the notion of encouraging school students to engage in novel, cutting-edge research.
Five years ago, I could never have imagined how a single mad idea might have blossomed and grown. Authentic Biology now involves hundreds of students and dozens of teachers, technicians and academics across the country. I don’t know what the future will bring but I suspect it is going to be very exciting!
Dr David Colthurst is a teacher at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Canterbury.
Read more about a day in the life of MBP2 (including photos, video and audio) in our previous blog post.