Cell EXPLORERS: national expansion of a sustainable public engagement model

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The Cell EXPLORERS programme is a science education and outreach programme developing a sustainable way of engaging the public in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) activities for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

Cell EXPLORERS is a science outreach programme that began in the School of Natural Sciences at the National University of Ireland Galway. The programme delivers Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) activities regionally and nationally. Cell EXPLORERS runs on a unique, sustainable model where higher education institution employees and students, on a voluntary basis or as part of their degree, are involved in public engagement. Thus, there is a dual benefit of engaging children and the general public whilst also facilitating the training of tomorrow’s science educators and communicators.

The Cell EXPLORERS model of using volunteer students and staff to engage the local public has been expanded to several higher education institutions in Ireland, in both universities and Institutes of Technology. The current project involves a further expansion to a total of 10 institutions spread nationwide. These local teams of scientists will visit schools around their institution and engage children and their families in hands-on science using tried and tested Cell EXPLORERS activities. The Cell EXPLORERS team members act as role models of people pursuing a career in science for children at an age where they decide whether they like science and they would like to study it.

The aim of the project is to test whether this model of outreach and engagement can be used effectively across institutions to engage local communities and to develop guidelines on effective and sustainable outreach from higher education institutions. In addition, the model could allow engagement of traditionally hard-to-reach localities across the island of Ireland.

Basic information

Country: Ireland

Coordinator: Cell EXPLORERS – NUI Galway, www.cellexplorers.com, http://www.nuigalway.ie/

Programme: National

Project Acronym:

Target groups: college students, education authorities, general public, industry, parents, primary school students, researchers, secondary school students, teachers, trainee teachers, university students, university lecturers, vocational school students, youth clubs

Topic: Biochemistry, Biology, Biomedicine, Biotechnology, Ecology, Environmental sciences, Food science, Gender in STEM, Genetics, Medical sciences, Microtechnology, Oceanography, Pharmacology, Physiology, Technology, Zoology

Start year: 2015

End year: 2018

Url: http://www.cellexplorers.com

Contact person: Muriel Grenon Email Muriel.grenon (at) nuigalway.ie

Assessment of the programme and evaluative research is performed on all aspects of Cell EXPLORERS activities including the volunteer scientists constituting the national teams as well as pupils, students and teachers hosting the teams in their schools.

Cell EXPLORERS volunteers are asked to complete pre- and post- activity surveys to gather feedback on their motivations, expectations and experiences of volunteering with Cell EXPLORERS. Partner team coordinators, who are responsible for managing the local Cell EXPLORERS teams in their institutions, are interviewed to gather information on the running of the team as well as any perceived impacts on their institutions, students and communities.

Outreach activities are evaluated to determine any short-term impact on the general public. In particular, the Fantastic DNA session is evaluated across all partner teams.

The curricular component of the Cell EXPLORERS programme is studied by asking project students to critically assess the project module and to reflect on any personal or skill development gained during the project.

Findings:

A first step in project assessment has been completed and a summary of results is available here (http://media.wix.com/ugd/a74b8a_d096e33f7c6044bd86ff258a911af0ca.pdf). The full evaluation of the first stage of the project run in 2015 and 2016 where 5 teams were active is to be provided.

The main goal of the project is to investigate the adaptability and sustainability of the Cell EXPLORERS model of science outreach. Evaluation of the programme’s success and growth in NUI Galway indicates that the use of volunteer students, when given appropriate training, is beneficial both in terms of sustainability and in terms of providing young, accessible science role models to young people.

In addition, volunteers, as well as project students, indicate that they are gaining valuable skills and experience through participating in the Cell EXPLORERS public engagement activities.

The evaluation of the national roadshow has shown that half of the children visited in their classroom had never met a scientist before. The reports on this first meeting show a positive experience associated with the enjoyment of hands-on activity in the classroom.

Conclusion:

This study is important in order to share knowledge about best practices for the involvement of HEIs in public engagement in science. Based on existing evidence, the model is successful, due in part to its mobilisation of third-level science students as science outreach volunteers. Further study at a national level could lead to the adoption of the model by HEIs and its use in STEM topics other than biology. A consequence of establishing a set of collaborating partner teams will be the emergence of a community of practice. This will allow sharing of best practice guidelines and ideas for novel outreach activities.

This could directly impact the dissemination of science education and public engagement (E&PE) activities in Ireland and in Europe.

Description of the activities:

The programme uses hands-on activities and local scientists to engage a range of publics in the importance of science in society with a diverse set of activities including school visits and science festival workshops (http://www.cellexplorers.com/activities).

The Cell EXPLORERS partners team run school roadshows nationally to classrooms. During the visit, participants impersonate scientists and are mentored by local scientists, facilitating real-life science experiences and one-to-one interactions with science role models. Each classroom visit is one hour long, are run at a high demonstrator-to-pupil ratio. The Cell EXPLORERS sessions involve hands on STEM activities allowing each pupil to carry out each experiment/activity themselves.

The programme promotes modern biology and biomedical sciences with most activities based around the topics of research in the school of natural sciences in NUI Galway.

Teaching Material:

The Fantastic DNA session is the most established Cell EXPLORERS school visit delivered nationally. The session involves a presentation, a banana DNA extraction experiment, another short presentation, a DNA model-building exercise and a quiz. It is described in detail on CE webpage: http://www.cellexplorers.com/#!fantastic-dna-/cp2o

Teaching material and protocols used during the Fantastic DNA Cell EXPLORERS Session are available in the Teacher Zone Section of the Cell EXPLORERS website. Other educational material on Cells, Genetics as well as the circulatory system and the respiratory system are also available in the teacher zone of the website.

 

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