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DkIT Lecturers Finds Innovative Ways to Promote Science in Schools Amid COVID-19 Restrictions

17 December 2020

Covid-19 has not stopped DkIT scientists from sharing their love of discovering how and why things work with prospective scientists of the future.

“I miss the excitement of the children and their enthusiasm for science. They also ask super smart questions,” said Dr. Caroline Gilleran Stephens, lecturer in Biotechnology in DkIT

With her DkIT colleague Dr Suzanne Linnane, Senior Lecturer in the Deparment of Applied Sciences, she has been visiting primary schools in Louth, Meath, Cavan and Monaghan as part of the ‘Cell Explorers’ outreach programme since 2016.Cell EXPLORERS is a science education and outreach programmes developed and led by the School of Natural Sciences in the National Universitu of Ireland Galway.

“With Cell Explorers we get to take an experiment that I normally

carry out with college students and bring it to primary school children,”

she said.

They have been sharing the excitement of extracting DNA with the pupils including doing experiments using real laboratory equipment.

“Cell Explorers respects that children understand so much and are very smart. Nothing is dumbed down for them, it’s just communicated in a really fun way that they understand,”

Dr Gilleran Stephens said.

Dr Suzanne Linnane added,

“Caroline and I are both passionate about science outreach and feel very fortunate to be collaborating with a great group of like-minded colleagues from IoTs and Universities right across the country. When NUIG invited us in 2016 to become the North-east regional co-ordinators, we jumped at the chance and in fact it fitted in perfectly with our already established ‘All about Water’ and ‘H2O Heroes’ outreach programmes.”

“We really believe that science is for everyone.  A programme like Fantastic DNA, for those lucky enough to experience it, provides an opportunity for really positive interactions between us the scientists and the schoolchildren. The benefits are two-fold, the children realise that science is fun and we get reminded about why we love science too!”

When Covid-19 put a stop to workshops in schools as well as trips by pupils to the DkIT labs where they met the team and their science students, Cell Explorers began to think of ways to keep the programme going.

As a result the Fantastic DNA roadshow became the Covid friendly Fantastic DNA in a Box while still containing all of the information and equipment a teacher and class need to continue to enjoy the hands-on workshop.

The box is delivered to each school and, to make sure it is Covid friendly, it contains test-tube racks that are made out of cardboard and every pupil gets their own individual sealed bag containing the chemicals and reagents they need to extract DNA from a banana.

Both Dr Gilleran Stephens and Dr Linnane can participate with the workshops via Zoom and the teachers are fully prepared and resourced by the team in advance.

St Oliver Plunkett National School in Blackrock, county Louth was the first school they did the programme with and it remains as popular as ever with them.

Conor McKenna head of IT and Science, said, the children, “just loved it! They really thought they were creating real science here. They came alive and were dying to use the little pipettes, to pour a solution into another one, they just loved every second of it, it was great.”

He said the workshop was adapted so it could still be delivered to pupils during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Fantastic DNA in a Box is delivered in advance to the school and he said,

“everything was inside plastic sandwich bags so each child had their own and it was totally uncontaminated.   They were all able to work and do the experiment without having to break a pod or even interact with their partner they are sitting beside.”

“It was very well suited to a Covid classroom environment. It was incredibly easy to use.”

Having female scientists involved with Cell Explorers is positive particularly for the girls in the class. 

He said DkIT's involvement at primary school level has benefits for the school and pupils.

“Having the people in the college with the interest to engage in primary schools and provide the children with these sorts of activities and experiments and to experience these things, it really is invaluable.”

Dr Gilleran Stephens said,

“we are really looking forward to getting back into the classroom in the future and no doubt answering lots of questions about vaccines and COVID.”

 ”the icing on the cake” would be to see one of the pupils who had taken part in a workshop, deciding to study sciences at DkIT. 

“We are 5 years involved in Cell Explorers this year, which means our first class would be now in 5th year so watch this space, that will be a very proud day for Suzanne and I.” 

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