To improve young people’s engagement with nature in the U.K., reintroduce the lynx.

On the 4th of December last year, Michael Gove, Defra’s Secretary of State, refused an application by the Lynx UK Trust to reintroduce six Eurasian lynx to Kielder forest in Northumberland [1]. Gove stated that the application did not meet the necessary standards set out in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines and additionally did not comprehensively provide the necessary information required for Defra to be confident in the success of the proposal. The Lynx UK Trust said they remain committed despite this setback and I hope a second application will be successful [2].

The ecological benefits of a lynx reintroduction, as a key stone species, are there for all to read. So too is information on the extent to which a reintroduction is likely to affect sheep farmers and any danger to the public. As an educator, the main reason I would like to see lynx reintroduced is for the learning and wellbeing opportunities it would give to school pupils in the United Kingdom.

I teach in a British School Overseas (BSO) in Romania. Romania is home to some of the largest populations of lynx, wolves and brown bears in Europe. Pupils at our school regularly go out on biology and geography field trips and Duke of Edinburgh hikes in the mountains where these apex predators live, but they rarely, if ever, see any of these animals. I have one pupil in Year 13 who saw a pair of wolves whilst cycling with her sister a few years ago. This pupil is Romanian and when asked by an English classmate if she was scared replied “No. Why would I be? They ran away”. The Deputy Head once saw a lynx late at night whilst talking to the owner of the cabin where pupils were staying; the first time the owner had ever seen one himself. I have heard one or two tall tales, mainly from boys, about seeing bears disappearing into bushes during DofE hikes but I think these are unlikely to be true given a guide walks out ahead (as well as behind) to clear the way, coupled with the noise made by a large group of teenagers carrying tin cans. Still, not impossible and certainly exciting for young people to think about.

lynx scat

Lynx scat, found in Zarnesti national park, two hours from Bucharest

Bears and wolves are one thing. Lynx are quite another. There are no incidences of a wild Eurasian lynx attacking a human in recorded history and the probability of ever seeing one is vanishingly small. One might see tracks in the snow or some scat, if lucky. But to a young person (and old alike) this is often enough to have an impact. Even just knowing that lynx are out there, sharing habitat with you is invigorating and, I would argue, potentially hugely inspiring. Learning about lynx adaptations, litter size, sexual dimorphism and where the species fits into a food web would be enjoyable for children already enthusiastic about nature as well as those usually less keen. A biology teacher stands a much better chance of reaching a grumpy fourteen year old who hates school out in the field spotting red squirrels alongside looking for lynx scratch marks.

An initial hook is often needed to develop an interest in a particular area, whether this interest is in fitness, coin collecting or natural history. For millions of young people across the U.K. the lynx could be this hook. I am not suggesting that every child who visits Kielder post-reintroduction will become an avid naturalist (I am optimistically assuming it will happen eventually), but it will inspire some to pay closer attention to the natural world. With the U.K. being one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth and with children aged 8-15 spending an average of just sixteen minutes per day in parks, countryside, seaside, beach or coastal locations, a lynx reintroduction might be more valuable, if not necessary, than ever [3].

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lynx-reintroduction-in-kielder-forest
  2. http://www.lynxuk.org/
  3. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/childrensengagementwiththeoutdoorsandsportsactivitiesuk/2014to2015
Advertisements

Testing the pH of Water around School, in the Snow

It was -2oC today in school, -8oC last night. The science garden pond has frozen over and a thin layer of hard snow covers the front playing field. Still, it was dry and sunny so I was keen to go ahead with the outdoor component to this lesson. The pupils here are well prepared for the cold weather, wearing snow boots, hats and thick coats so there really was no reason to cancel.

Pond smash 3

Smashing pond ice

This Year 7 class is quite wriggly, so I arranged them into pairs or groups of three – mixing up personalities. I had a T.A with me too who helped keep an eye on behaviour whilst pupils were outside. Each pupil received two test tubes and chose two locations to collect water/ice/snow from. Popular choices included the ornamental fountains, rewilding zone puddles and science garden pond. They filled the test tubes with water before coming back to the lab and testing pH using universal indicator. They had to decide in their pair or small group what pH number the colour indicated. I am always pleased to hear polite arguing when it comes to learning conversations between peers – these disagreements can be really very powerful. “No, it’s more green than blue, so it’s pH 8 not 9!” etc.

Pupils had planned their investigations in simple form at the start of the lesson, stating independent, dependent and control variables. Once they had agreed up the pH values for each location/sample they jotted the numbers down and produced a bar graph. There were some interesting results, with samples turning the indicator yellow, purple and everything in between.

acids and bases write up edit

Writing up results in the classroom

Next lesson we will start with five key words they can use in the conclusion followed by some peer assessment of their partners’ graphs using two stars and a wish. Students will then write up a short conclusion, highlighting key words, followed by an evaluation after we have discussed possible reasons for the differences in pH as a class. The whole lesson will end with a classic plenary using mini whiteboards – I will display colours and numbers on the projector screen. If pupils see a number they write the colour the universal indicator will turn and if they see a colour they estimate the pH number.

I am a big fan of short outdoor activities and in many ways prefer them to lessons taking place entirely outside. They are easy to plan, snappy, and pupils get to stretch their legs and blow off a bit of steam (which is especially important for the younger ones). Finding out that the snow on the school field is slightly acidic and the ornamental fountain water is alkaline of one’s own volition is so much more engaging than testing prepared solutions *Yawn*.

Enrichment: Stretching the high end

There has been a push over the past couple of year across our school towards challenging higher ability pupils, this having been one focus of an inspection we received last academic year. Although the inspection has been and gone and we passed with flying colours (with the science department getting a special mention for its emphasis on learning through practical activity), it is something I have remained interested in and continued to hone in my own lessons. My differentiation had previously been geared mostly towards making work accessible to pupils for whom science is more challenging and pupils aiming for A*s. But this high-end focus is about stretching pupils who are already well on track for an A* beyond the normal curriculum, otherwise referred to as enrichment.

There are three main approaches one can take here. The first is to apply real examples and case studies to the course material and get pupils to incorporate current facts and figures into their regular writing (not examination answers). Another is to introduce some A-level material. I tend to use this approach only on rare occasions because it can feel a bit dry and there is time for this when A-levels come around. The third approach is to introduce conceptual challenges based around my own knowledge of a topic. I find the best opportunities for this come from ecology, natural history and evolution given my background as an undergraduate and being subjects I continue to read books about.

On the one hand I think teachers should be careful not to overindulge our own interests within and around the subject thereby imposing them on pupils. We should try to spread extension across the curriculum. On the other hand it is nice to have teachers with a specialist interest and that interest/enthusiasm is infectious, which impacts pupils’ general enjoyment and fulfillment within the subject.

I was given a fallen bird nest by a fellow teacher on Thursday, found by her daughter in the local woodland. I think it is a wren’s nest. As a Dawkins fan (for the most part), I set a starter task of pupils discussing in pairs why they think the nest might be regarded as an ‘extended phenotype’. They needed to use key words from previous genetics lessons in the explanation. The idea here is that pupils who aren’t sure can provide a handful of key words they think might be relevant, ‘genotype’, for instance whilst the other puts it all together into full sentences. I also set the task of finding out what species of bird built the nest using an iPad, just as an added bonus for those who finished first. Neither of these pieces of knowledge are directly required from the syllabus but are not so off-road as to be irrelevant. The addition of facts and concepts from outside the syllabus is enriching, but it is a fine balance, must come after the meat and potatoes, and pupils should be made aware that it is additional. A teacher has to have the pupils’ confidence first so they know you aren’t just going off topic accidentally. I print off the syllabus points before a topic so pupils can highlight them as we work through (green/yellow/red depending upon understanding) and refer to them regularly, so there a clear picture of where we are and where we are going in relation to the final destination – Year 11 examinations.

We listed the key words from everyone’s explanation and linked it to the next topic sub-topic within genetics and inheritance – natural selection. It was a nice introduction talking about how the chicks within high-quality nests have a greater chance of survival and that they contain the alleles coding for good nest building skills so their offspring in turn will inherit this trait so the allele spreads through the population’s gene pool.

nest

Wren’s nest in the classroom

Still, I remember as a pupil asking teachers about topics I knew they would go on about for five minutes so that I could slack off for a bit thus it is important not to get too specific. To bring all back into line I have set some general questions on natural selection from the textbook for homework and pupils will complete a past paper question on the archetypal example other than Darwin’s finches – peppered moths and the industrial revolution – as a starter activity next lesson.

I suppose the questions we need to ask when planning an enrichment activity are:

  1. Is meaningful?
  2. Does it link to the specification in some way?
  3. Where is the pupils’ elastic limit?

Of course, enrichment should not be the preserve only of the high-end but I think the priority has to be getting a pupil through the core material first (this can and should still be done using enjoyable, engaging activities).

Microbes and disease misconceptions

There are some interesting misconceptions that crop up in science lessons, right through from year seven to thirteen. One common one is that condensation on the outside of a water bottle comes from water inside the bottle. Another is that deoxygenated blood is blue, probably because most diagrams represent oxygenated blood as red and deoxygenated as blue. On that same topic, pupils often think that red blood cells are either oxygenated or deoxygenated with no in between and that blood is made by the heart. A classic physics example is that a penny dropped from the top of the Eiffel Tower would kill a person.

I enjoy debunking these misconceptions, and I find it interesting that over the ten years I have been teaching the same ones keep cropping up. I had another standard today – soil contains diseases. Not completely untrue but not to the extent that key stage three pupils often predict when carrying out microorganism investigations. All bacteria cause disease – that is another one.

This week my year nine class were given two agar plates each to rub swab samples onto. They had to choose one place where they thought lots of microorganisms grow and one that is completely sterile. Most chose playing fields, monkey bars and bins, shoes and toilets to take their ‘dirty’ sample from and desks, window sills and bathroom taps for the ‘clean’ sample.agar sample

This draws up a few interesting conversations – Can you tell if something contains diseases by looking at it? Is soil bacteria harmful to humans? Is something disease-free because it is shiny?

The agar plates will be incubated over the weekend for viewing on Monday before pupils take a photo of each and use an app on their iPads to superimpose a 100 square grid over the image to estimate percentage cover. They will then observe eachothers’ samples under a light microscope and try to identify any growth as bacterial or fungal.

Usually bathroom areas show very little growth, presumably because they are cleaned so regularly and the areas that show the most diversity are teachers’ computer keyboards.

An Update and Improving Science Trip Provision

I have been very busy these past few months. I hate when people say that – Everyone is busy! But the time I would normally use to write has been taken up with matters relating to my role as head of science that I cannot share on here. Not that they are particularly sensitive or serious but I avoid writing in detail about certain decisions I make in my management role, this being a blog to mainly used to kick around ideas. Not to mention this all being linked under my name and school (although unofficially) with pupils, parents and fellow staff members having access. As such I would never publish thoughts on decisions that relate to sensitive topics, past or present.

I have also successfully completed a middle leadership course which ran throughout last year and really picked up pace at the end with a final action research report being due. In short, it was useful and I passed although there are parts that I would approach differently next time, which is always the way.

I do find this platform useful as a place to record my thinking on how to improve pupil engagement with science (particularly nature/outdoor-based activities) and that is what this short piece is about – assembling some order in my plan to improve trip provision for chemistry, physics and biology at key stages 4 and 5.

About six months ago my wife and I went with some friends to a micro-brewery and made eight litres of wheat beer. Most of the bottles came out successfully, even though I am not a big fan of wheat beer, much preferring IPA. The place is owned by two brothers, both of whom speak excellent English, especially one who lived in London for eight years. During the descriptions of the process one thing stuck out – the science chimed perfectly with a particular section the GCSE biology syllabus I recalled from years back but had not seen in newer syllabi. I checked and found that the role of anaerobic respiration in bread-making remained but brewing beer had been taken out.

biology syllabus 1

biology syllabus 2

 

Cambridge IGCSE Biology syllabi – first exam 2015 on top and first exam 2020 beneath.

I searched the latest Cambridge IGCSE chemistry specification wondering if it had been shifted across and found that brewing did not appear there either. This was more of a disappointment because the chemistry department is in need of a new trip whereas biology has two post-KS3 trips already – one of which just needs improving (more on that below). It does make me wonder why this decision was made at a time when craft beer sales are on the increase in the U.K. alongside over 2000 registered breweries. Why take this small piece of content out when the industry is going through a growth period?

The less than three and half pages of bullet points that makes up the biology content of the national curriculum for England doesn’t offer any clues, having been last updated in December 2014, when compared to versions right back to 1999, neither containing any mention of brewing.

So the search for a chemistry trip continues. I have asked the Headmaster to see if he has any parent contacts in the pharmaceutical industry. We did have a professor of chemistry visit from the University of Bucharest who gave a very interesting talk on persistent organic pollutants but I know their on-site facilities are basic.

A more exciting prospect is that of A-level physics students visiting a site that researches nuclear physics with high powered lasers, just 12km from Bucharest. I have the email address of a contact and reached out to them today to see if they can offer something relevant. I am hopeful, the Edexcel international AS and A2 physics syllabi we use having lots of content relating directly to these areas. This will be a good one to run in winter after mock exams and January modules are complete.

Briefly, I was a bit disappointed with the Danube Delta trip for this year’s Year 11 biologists. The pupils got what was needed out of the trip and enjoyed themselves, but I know it could be made better. I am considering a complete shift in location to the mountains for the bulk of the five day programme and have contacted a couple of organisations to see what they can offer in June in terms of field work opportunities. One possibility is that the pupils do a tour of three sites, visiting the bison reintroduction programme first, stopping for a day at a wolf research centre en route to spending a final day at the Danube delta. It would be a shame to strike the delta off completely, being the most biodiverse place in Europe.

 

References

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/apr/01/craft-beer-makers-hope-to-tap-new-markets-with-free-samples

http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4402/1/cSci.pdf

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/381380/Science_KS4_PoS_7_November_2014.pdf

http://www.cambridgeinternational.org/images/128334-2015-syllabus.pdf

http://www.cambridgeinternational.org/Images/414443-2020-2021-syllabus.pdf

http://www.eli-np.ro/

https://rewildingeurope.com/news/largest-ever-bison-reintroduction-in-southern-carpathians-boosts-population-by-23-animals/

 

Setting aside grass patches as rewilding sites and the impact on learning

I wrote a while back about the creation of a school rewilding zone and some of trials and triumphs surrounding this endeavor. Whilst use of the rewilding zone as an outside learning resource continues to grow (no pun intended) across all key stages, we have added an extra resource to the same end that is proving equally valuable – rewilding satellite sites.

Music room patch

Rewilding patch outside music classroom

The idea for these rewilding patches came from seeing a Tweet of Chris Packham’s about the Blue Heart Campaign – A drive to allow small areas of school grounds to grow wild. I identified two suitable sites and asked the maintenance team manager if they would cease cutting these areas over the spring and summer months. Whilst she did agree to this request, it came with two conditions that I was happy to meet. One was to place the blue hearts in full view of anybody passing by and the other to make parents aware of the purpose of what might otherwise be regarded as mess. I understand that the maintenance team have a good reputation to uphold and do not want anybody to think that areas are growing wild simply due to neglect.

Always happy to help, the Design and Technology technician knocked together and painted two smart-looking blue heart posts. The marketing team put out a Facebook post and placed a professional-style poster on the notice board at the front gate to raise parental awareness.

And so our rewilding patches were born – One alongside the dining hall (which is made up of two patches really, one small and one large) and another outside the music classroom. The music teacher had recently read George Monbiot’s Feral and so was only too pleased to grant permission. Over the four or so weeks after the last of the snow finally thawed, with temperatures rising alarmingly quickly (From -3oC to 21oC in seven days), the grass grew taller and wildflowers began to appear as did bee flies, moths, and honey bees. At first I wanted to avoid watering the patches as I felt this wasn’t in the spirit of rewilding but soon found that without this intervention these small spaces quickly dried out. The school maintenance team once again proved their willingness to assist by agreeing to include the patches in the daily watering schedule, since when the plants have really taken off.

Blue heart facing dining hall

Blue heart facing dining hall

These areas have so far proven to be valuable extensions of the classroom for Secondary pupils learning field-research skills such as quadrating and using pooters to catch invertebrates. The invertebrates can be identified in-the-field with the aid of a magnifying glass as per the arthropod classification sub-topic within the Cambridge IGCSE programme. Any slugs, beetles, spiders and so on can be photographed on an iPad and later drawn and labelled for their defining features such as the presence of a thorax, practicing an important ‘alternative to practical’ component. Plants can also be used to the same end, identifying the similarities and differences between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, as well as labelling the parts of a flower. I have seen Primary using the patches too, for bug hunts.

Monocot dicot question

Cambridge Biology IGCSE past paper question

I have been pushing outdoor learning across the Secondary science department this year and enjoyed observing a Year 8 lesson where the pupils compared levels of biodiversity within rewilding patches compared to regularly mowed areas. Whilst I was not convinced their methodology was free from bias, one thing was abundantly clear – these patches do show incredible biodiversity for such small areas, possibly benefiting from the school being located on the edge of a forest. Ask your school if you can rewild a couple of grass areas and let me know how it goes.

 

A school magazine article written by a Year 9 pupil (unedited)

B. Lithobius forficatus

B. Lithobius forficatus

Preserving Nature

In Biology classes, a significant part of the discussion shifts toward ecology, the study of ecosystems and the ways in which we can protect the remaining wild spaces on earth. While learning about these topics is exciting in and of itself, it is much more interesting to experiment with ways to conserve the environment and mapping the living organisms around us.

In BSB nature club Christopher Baker, head of the science faculty and Biology teacher and the maintenance team of the school have collaborated in order to create a re-wilding zone on the school grounds. Here, native species of animals and plants can grow and develop without outside interference.

The Nature club led by Christopher Baker has conducted several biological surveys of the area and we are eager to say that we have found a significant increase in biodiversity compared to the rest of the school grounds.

C. Adalia decempunctata

C. Adalia decempunctata

From different species of ladybirds ( ten spot ladybird, pine ladybird and the famous seven spot ladybird ) to more obscure soil invertebrates, a group which frequently serves as an indicator to the health of an ecosystem as more diverse soil fauna can support a more diverse plant life, the Nature club is working on conducting a census of the invertebrate fauna of the school.

A. Henia illyrica

A. Henia illyrica

One of the taxonomic families which appears to exhibit the highest diversity in species on the school grounds, Centipedes (Chilopoda) has greatly benefited from the creation of a re-wilding zone as within it we have found species ranging from the common Lithobius forficatus to the rare and poorly known soil centipedes Pachymerium atticum and Henia illyrica.

Conducting this survey has taught us the importance of creating wild areas in order to preserve biodiversity as well as giving us an insight into the fascinating life of these animals.

Rabbit Dissection for Year 11 Biology Leavers (Final practical lesson)

rabbit dissection edit

Students in action

Year 11 students have been under the pump in recent weeks in the final run up before International GCSE examinations in May. Against all training, I have been doing a lot of ‘chalk and talk’, cramming in as much revision and filling in any remaining gaps in knowledge before the beginning of exam leave on Friday, trying to make sure they are as prepared as possible. Practical lessons have fallen by the wayside with the emphasis shifting to examination technique and past paper completion. I wanted to end on an exciting, though still very useful note.

Our science technician and I have been looking for a butcher who can supply whole unskinned rabbits for weeks. Phil is the best technician I have worked with – Organised, positive, good with the students, with great subject knowledge and he is always willing to go the extra mile. Phil spent last Sunday morning liaising with a supplier from a local market but eventually the deal fell through. We eventually managed to get hold of four huge fresh specimens, two males and two females, through our purchasing department.

The other biology teacher is excellent in all respects, but not keen on mammal dissections. So I amalgamated our classes for a double period to carry out the dissection in groups of four. Students were given the opportunity to opt out and instead attend a regular revision lesson which two of the sixteen decided to do. Pleasingly and of their own free will they did pop in for a look at the final result.

Two of the students who took part want to be surgeons – a boy and a girl (cardiac and cosmetic respectively) – so this was an opportunity for them to gain hands-on experience of what that might be like. That said it was useful to all pupils as a revision activity. A rabbit, being mammalian, has a similar internal organ structure to humans. They identified the heart, liver, gall bladder, lungs, tests, kidneys, retina, optic nerve and brain. One group cut open a kidney to reveal and label the cortex, medulla and ureta before answering some key questions on function. They have previously dissected sheep hearts, lungs and kidneys but this brought it all together.

I feel the use of real rabbits rather than simulation is justified on the basis that it is a far richer and exciting learning experience. The boy who wants to be a cardiac surgeon exclaimed that the lesson reaffirmed his desire to be a cardiac surgeon which made me very happy; as did other comments such as “This is the best lesson of the year” and the always pleasing “This is so cool!”

These rabbits were farmed for meat and destined for the dinner table but that is not to say they had any less of a right to life than the cute types in a pet shop window or wild individuals for that matter. In fact, perhaps the knock-on ecological effect of a wild-caught rabbit would make me less inclined to use them but I think that’s an unlikely choice. I felt more than a pang of guilt when one of the females turned out to be pregnant with seven embryos. Luckily I spotted the full placentas before any of the students so was able to prepare them first. Some were a little sad and all were shocked but there were no tears and this became a valuable part of the dissection. We preserved two embryos in 70% ethanol for future use during the reproduction unit.

rabbit embryo

Two of the rabbit foetuses

When Year 10 GCSE Biology students heard about the embryos they were desperate to come and look but I refused. Year 11s (15-16 years old) are the youngest I am comfortable allowing to see such a shocking sight and parents might not be very happy if their fourteen year old son or daughter goes home upset. It gives Year 10 something else to look forward to next year.

It was a hard-hitting, smelly practical lesson but the pupils dealt with it maturely, methodically and were very grateful for the experience. I will certainly be requesting four rabbits again for next year.

Birds Struggling in March Blizzard

feildfare

Fieldfare on low-heat radiator insulated with whiteboard cloths

The birds on campus are dropping like flies. For the past few days pupils of all ages have informed me of cold and starving birds on the school playground, in the corridors and on the playing field. A handful of concerned Year 7, 8 and 9s have been helping me put out trays of apple pieces along with some old crackers that were due to be thrown away from the science prep room and have since gone down a storm with Great tits. The half-coconut feeders I brought back from the UK after the Christmas break were exhausted by the end of January.

Blackbird and fieldfare seem to have suffered most, coming in from the surrounding forest and subsequently losing the ability to fly, hopping between children looking for pieces of fallen sandwich, seemingly either disorientated or so desperately hungry that they have lost all fear of humans. I have seen quite a few with ice-covered beaks and legs. Two fieldfare were brought to me breathing but motionless with closed eyes. Both perked up after thirty minutes in a box on top of a radiator turned to low heat and began flying gently into the window before being released, one this afternoon and one yesterday. I am quite sure I found the bird from yesterday frozen outside my classroom window this morning beneath a bush, having succumbed to the sub-zero temperatures during the night. Later a boy pointed out a headless male blackbird by one of the school fountains that I suspect was the same one I fed pieces of bread to yesterday, the victim of a cat perhaps. I have not seen a cat in the eighteen months I have worked at the school but I can’t think of anything else that would leave behind an intact headless body.

One bird species that seems to be doing well out of the cold snap is sparrow hawk. A female was seen with a fieldfare early this morning, evidently taking advantage of the easy pickings. There is a patch of feathers over by the chemistry laboratory which could be the work of a sparrow hawk or a cat.

This second blizzard was less expected than the last. A week ago all remaining snow had all melted and male storks had begun returning to last year’s nests after overwintering Africa, making repairs in preparation for returning females. I read an article online this morning about grounded storks in Bulgaria being taken indoors by people to recover. A snow day has been called for tomorrow as heavy snowfall is forecast after midnight tonight, although temperatures are forecast to increase after the weekend, up to 14oC this time next week; up 16oC from a high of -2oC earlier today.

I barely managed to eat lunch this afternoon, with so many students and staff coming to me with questions about what to do about dying birds. My response is to either put them into a box inside for a while before release or just to leave them alone. I suspect many more birds fell victim to the cold last night but maintenance cleared them away before the rest of us arrived at school.

Is this varying extreme weather symptomatic of the greenhouse effect? Bird numbers across Europe are plummeting as it is, due to habitat loss and increased pesticide use. Ralph Underhill’s Saturday cartoon, familiar to many from Mark Avery’s blog, is fast turning from an amusing warning into a very possible reality. Then again, it is only March and this is Romania so heavy snowfall is pretty normal at this time of year. Still, it can’t be doing bird populations any good during an already testing time, save for maybe killing off a few diseases.

Ralph Underhill

Trip to a Stem Cell Laboratory

This was possibly the best trip science trip I have organised in my career so far. It began with an invitation to the opening of an exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Bucharest from a 13 year-old pupil who spends most evenings there working on centipedes at his own desk. His parents are doctors and introduced me to a family friend who owns a private stem cell laboratory. Naturally I asked if he would allow A-level pupils to visit to learn about the practical methods which form a part of the Edexcel International syllabus. Happily, he agreed, but asked that I keep it to maximum of three students (I took four).

I chose a date to coincide with British Science Week, collected back the parental consent letters and booked a minibus. Having not carried out a reconnaissance visit as I usually would, I did not know what to expect and was quite nervous – Would there be enough to see to fill a two hour visit? Well, it could not have been better. Pupils first sat down with the chief biochemist and heard about the laboratory’s background, followed by a question and answer session. It turned out to be a private company that harvests stem cells from the umbilical cord of mothers who have given birth within the past 36 hours. The cells are divided into two forms before being stored at -190oC in a liquid nitrogen container. Should the child develop an illness or condition later on in life, these cells can be used for treatment. With the speed of progress, not only will the success rate increase with time, but also the number of conditions that can be treated – surprisingly possibly including autism.

Students were taken into a locker room where they disinfected hands, tied back hair, put on a gown and covered shoes. They watched biochemists at work in a sterile quarantine-style sealed room, through a window. The biochemists were working on placentas and umbilical cords. Next, pupils were asked to put on masks and gloves, invited into the air lock and entered the lab! After more hand sterilisation, they received explanations of the stem cell harvesting process including how the centrifuge works and incubation. They observed samples in media from each stage of the process before initial freezing at -90oC. To my surprise, pupils were invited to help with the first stage of the process by chopping up umbilical cords in petri dishes beneath sealed hoods under close supervision. I couldn’t help but give it a go myself. After that we looked inside one of the storage containers, liquid nitrogen spilling over the side like something out of a 70s sci-fi movie – Incredible.

Mr. Baker in action

Mr. Baker working on an umbilical cord

Pupils were invited to have some blood taken to analyse for red blood cell and white blood cell count, haemoglobin concentration, and so on. It was at this point that I stepped in to say this would not be possible due to them not yet being adults and having no parental consent for such an activity! I instead offered my own blood for the students to analyse and I am happy to say the results were healthy. It was fascinating seeing my own red blood cells under the microscope. I was pleased to hear one pupil comment “Wow. You can really see the biconcave shape.”

I cannot imagine finding myself in such an immersive, surreal situation whilst teaching in the UK. I plan to take next year’s Year 12s on the same trip but don’t want to push my luck by asking if GCSE pupils can go. Besides, the level of pitch was very much A-level to degree standard. All I need now is for a question on stem cell technology to appear in the summer examination. Pupils could not be better prepared for it.