In this blog Melissa Finnerty talks about her experience developing and piloting a science outreach activity funded by the Biochemical Society. The report of the activity mentioned in the blog is available here.
I am a 4th year Biochemistry student based in the School of Natural Sciences, NUI Galway. Here I describe my experiences in developing a science outreach session on Astrobiology for my final year research project. The development of this session was for Cell EXPLORERS in collaboration with the Blackrock Castle Observatory (BCO) and was unique as it was part of my final year undergraduate research project.
Cell EXPLORERS (www.cellexplorers.com) is a science outreach and public engagement programme in the School of Natural Sciences in NUI Galway.
Directed by Dr Muriel Grenon and supported by Science Foundation Ireland, it uses a unique model where staff and students, as volunteers or as part of their degree, allow sustainable outreach. The programme runs a network of ten teams based at higher education institutions which propose hands on science activity in schools nationwide across Ireland. BCO also serves as a science and space centre that aims to “affect positive change in attitudes toward science, engineering and technology in Ireland and be recognised and respected as a centre of excellence in scientific research, education and outreach”. For this project, I worked in collaboration with Francis McCarthy, an education and outreach officer at BCO.
- Researching the session background
Coupling my ideas for a classroom inquiry-based session to the topic of life in space proved to be a challenge as I wanted to bring something new to the classroom. I wanted to incorporate inquiry-based learning as a pedagogy in my session as it’s been shown to be effective for engaging children with science and the scientific process. It was critical that the session design was relevant and was pitched at a suitable level for the target age group. Researching astrobiology was an exciting process as it is currently being explored by NASA today; mission ‘Europa Clipper’.
Figure 1 A still of the introductory interactive presentation of the activity.
- Creating the session resources
The most challenging component of the project personally was using Microsoft Office applications and designing videos for the sessions’ introductory presentation proved difficult. However, these skills improved throughout the project as PowerPoint and Excel were continuously used.
Figure 2 Panel 1 Delivering the introductory presentation to the classroom in the pilot. Panel 2 An example of an experimental set-up designed by the children. Panel 3 The front page of the demonstrator handbook.
- Piloting the session
I enjoyed making my own decisions on what I was going to produce as I felt like I had something to contribute to the field of science communication. My favourite part was piloting the first draft of my session ‘Are We Alone?’ as working with the students provided me with a great insight into what worked and what didn’t. We piloted the session with the 5th class students of Galway Educate Together National School, taught by Mr Barry Maguire. As one of the aims of the development of this project was to roll it out nationally to more Cell EXPLORERS teams across Ireland, the pilot helped to push me in the right direction on what changes needed to be implemented to bring the session to international level.
- Evaluating the session and refining
Isolating my main findings began like sorting through a puzzle as I had to sort through feedback from the teacher, demonstrators and student questionnaires as well as some raw date from the day and input into excel. This was the most important component for project success.
Figure 3 Panel 1 An example of a student worksheet from the pilot. Panel 2 A student writing up his results in the pilot.
- Presenting the session
This took place to give students the opportunity to communicate their main findings to their supervisor and an external examiner after final reports were submitted. The presentation day provided me with improved public speaking skills. A full semester worth of late nights reading, sore fingers from typing, hours of editing, and pacing anxiously while rehearsing my presentation, but it was all worth it as I am proud of what I have achieved.
What I learned from developing an outreach resource
Reflecting on the completion of this project made me realise that I found the experience thoroughly enjoyable. It has helped me both as a student and as I go on to become a professional. This research has prompted me to think about where I see my career progressing as I aspire to become a science/biology teacher and has provided me with valuable experience to do so. I am ardent about working with children and learning things that pertain to my future career prospects which is why I decided to choose a scientific outreach/education project for my thesis. I now know more than I thought I could about life in space and NASA’s mission to Europa.
Overall, I feel that this has been both a valuable and enjoyable experience and I now feel prepared and excited to write a graduate thesis in the upcoming years. I would like to thank my supervisor Dr. Muriel Grenon, Ms. Frances McCarthy (BCO), 5th class teacher Mr. Barry Maguire and the Biochemical society for supporting this project.
You can read about other previous Scientific Outreach Grant winners here.