Twenty-five school students aged 16-17 (year 12) joined us in July, having just completed their AS levels, to take part in the BCI STARS course - a one-week intensive practical course in general research laboratory skills.
STARS 2015 was a huge success aided in no small way by an award of £1000 from the Biochemical Society for which we are enormously grateful. This is the third STARS course we have run and our expectations for all have been far exceeded, both in terms of the positive feedback from our PhD students and the visiting school students.
"I thought research science was boring but after the programme I started to like it as you get to work on your own projects and be independent and I’ve got to know that I actually like working in [a] laboratory"
- STARS 2015 student
Our facilitators - PhD students studying here at BCI - taught the students in groups of 3-4 to do the following:
- Correctly use micro-pipettes and automatic pipette guns
- Aseptic technique: sterile tissue culture of cancer cells
- Biochemical analysis of cancer cells using SDS-PAGE and western blotting
- Label biomarkers in cancer tissue using immunochemistry and analyse by microscopy
- Purify, analyse and clone DNA
- Run polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) of cheek cell DNA
University staff from Widening Participation came to advise the students on completing their university application form, how to write their personal statement and budgeting as a student.
Students learning to use micro-pipettes
The original plan was that the STARS courses would provide science communication for our
PhD students and enhance the opinions of school students who study science A levels, of what a research scientist is and thus possibly increase the likelihood of them becoming one or pursuing an allied career.
We've found that it works! The PhD students love the experience and the challenge of having to describe complex concepts in everyday language, a great training for both public engagement and writing grants.
The school students love the excitement of being in the lab and using the equipment, but especially working directly with a new young professional every day who, being only a few years older than them, can act as inspiring ambassadors for what they can achieve.
“Whiteboard explanation sessions were really good and gave a sort of “school explanation”- a format we are used to and helped in understanding more”
We also challenge our PhD students to give “Lightning Seminars” on their own research. Armed with a whiteboard and pen and 10 seconds notice, the academic lead for the morning picks randomly among the demonstrators during a long incubation; this reduces the potential boredom for the school students and gets our PhD students to think on their feet.
“Speaking to the PhD students was really useful - they treated me like an equal which helped me gain knowledge and confidence”
Students listening intently to a "lightning seminar
It was our hope that our experience might be repeated elsewhere - we are pleased to know a new course will begin at Kings College London in 2016 and will be run by Professor Maddy Parsons; good luck to the King’s STARS! If you would like to develop your own STARS programme please contact Professor Marshall who can send an outlines and handouts that can be adapted for your own STARS course.
The school students who attended STARS were mostly identified by the charity access-workplacements, a London-based charity that works with schools traditionally having a low percentage of their students progressing to universities or other higher education.
While it is too early to assess the impact of the STARS course, of the seven (of total eleven) STARS 2013 students who provided feedback, two are now at medical school, one in veterinary school, one studies physics, two biomedical degrees and one is training to be a mining engineer; all of them got their first choice of university and degree.
“It made me realise that I can go to any university I like and I can do the course that I want to do”
We hope this level of success continues. Going forward we would like to follow the achievements of our young STARS and next year a gift from QMUL Annual Fund will allow us to offer a one day refresher course in year 13 prior to their final exams to track the student’s progress through to university, as well as support to keep in touch with them, through whichever channels work best.
With thanks to all of our organisers, facilitators, admin support Access, the Biochemical Society, QMUL, and of course our excellent students!