As part of our research grant from BBSRC on Bioluminescence, we have developed a two-week activity on microbiology and modelling aimed at Year 5 primary school students (aged ~10). The development has been in conjunction with my colleagues Phil Hill and Jon Hobman, the West Midlands Association of Science Educators Field Officer Gaynor Sharp, and the Gifted and Talented Coordinator at Oxley Primary School, Shepshed, Lorraine Levine. We carried out the first visit today together with PhD student and STEM ambassador James Williamson and the second visit will be next week (watch for another post!) We had considerable help in the lesson from class teacher Darryl Morris and Lorraine. The two most important objectives of these visits are:
- To provide children with exciting opportunities to engage with real science in a way that is fun, interesting and relevant to them.
- To support primary schools in delivering the “working scientifically” elements of the National Curriculum.
The aim of this week’s visit was to discuss microbes and have the children design and carry out their own microbiology experiment. We started with general discussion about what microbes were, showing images of microbes, and discussing also the positive uses of microbes (making bread, chocolate and so forth). We then got more exciting when discussing just how small these microbes are. The giant microbes got passed around (they went down very well!) and this was followed by live images from a microscope with its own digital camera projecting to the interactive white board via USB/laptop. Rhizopus, Saccharomyces, E. coli all went down very well! We then discussed glow-in-the-dark microbes, with suitable reference to the angler fish in Finding Nemo.
Next the experiment: we had brought in pre-poured nutrient agar plates so we can culture some bugs and bring them back (sealed) next week. I had also brought in some plates that I had put my fingers in the week before and now had interesting fungal and bacterial colonies – all nicely sealed. These got passed around to suitable levels of disgust and excitement! With 36 children in the class, we have carried out a 6-way comparison:
- Hands (touching the plate with fingers)
- Hands rubbed through hair
- Hands washed with just water
- Hands washed with soap and water
- Hands washed with alcohol gel
- Feet (really!)
The children suggested putting their fingers into their noses / ears and put on the plates but we had to veto that for safety grounds (good chance of growing a large dose of something pathogenic). The children of course liked the idea of us bringing back potentially deadly pathogens to their classroom – but obviously not a good idea! The children loved putting on the lab coats we provided and got stuck in very excitedly.
In parallel, we had brought along two flasks of bioluminescent bacteria, a pop-up dark sensory tent, some disposable pipettes and bijoux, and some detox spray. James manned the tent and each child had the chance to go into the tent and see the glow in the dark sample – and confirm that they could be killed by the antibacterial spray (they stopped glowing). Another resounding success. While this was going on, I had many children come to see and use the microscope, and we looked at various prepared slides of bacteria, fungi and even decidedly non-microbial animal hairs. They were quite impressed that they could also see the image on my laptop and on the class screen.
The plates will now be incubated at room temperature for a week, and next week we will seal them and bring them back. The plan is to do some data analysis (this is where the maths will come in) and for the children (in groups) to create posters as a form of scientific reporting. This is the link to the blog post for the second week.
As a final note I would like to thank again Class Teacher Darryl Morris and Head Teacher Jeanette Hadley for their support and facilitation of these visits.