The annual Dynamic DNA event hosted by the GENIE project took place this week, with over five hundred students from thirteen schools passing through Leicester’s doors in just two days, and this year I decided to volunteer in running some of the activities.
GENIE, or Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence, is essentially a large scale project at Leicester University for promoting genetics education through refurbishing and building labs, hosting seminars on genetics research, and putting on a number of outreach events throughout the year. They have also created The Virtual Genetics Education Centre, which has some pretty extensive (not to mention award winning!) resources for everyone from primary school students to health professionals, all available online.
This particular event was for year nine students, and it was the task of the volunteers to navigate the school students through the university, and show them how exciting the world of biology really is through running activities in cloning, solving crimes, extracting DNA and much more. I was on the human evolution stall, where we had a number of skull casts from the genus Homo that the students had to try and put in the right order, thinking about how the different species evolved over time to become modern humans. In the afternoons I then helped students build their own DNA models, to help give a sense of what DNA was actually made of.
These kinds of events seem really important to me, because at that age I really wasn’t interested in science. I was never able to connect the abstract concepts I was being taught at school to the world outside of it, and often the majority of class time was just spent trying to keep all the students under control. It wasn’t until I started reading popular science books that I got a glimpse of what science really was, and on reflection it’s frustrating remembering many of my teachers’ stumbling replies to the students constantly asking ‘What is the point of learning this?’. Any opportunity to try and inspire younger students is also always a great experience, particularly when trying to explain the difficulties in genetically modifying a horse to make a unicorn, why making a DNA model into the shape of a flower is a thermodynamically unstable state, and why there’s more to the ethical question of trying to clone a neanderthal than just worrying about if he’d be too ugly to get girls..