April 24, 2019, by Lexi Earl
Why should academics participate in public engagement?
March was a busy month for Future Food Beacon researchers Dr Sina Fischer and Dr Michael Wilson as they participated in Science in the Park and Family Discovery Day. Here, they recall their experiences, and explain why they participate in these types of public engagement activities.
In March Michael Wilson and I teamed up with our colleagues to take part in different public engagement events. We had prepared ourselves for busy days, engaging with children and their families, explaining science and showing them what our research is all about.
Both outreach days were a tremendous success. We were unbelievably busy. At the activity “What makes plants grow?” we showed close to 200 children how a researcher sets up an experiment to understand how the environment affects plant growth. The children were eager to participate and to set up their own experiments. We gave them each 6 small pots and they padded them with cotton wool which we were using instead of soil to allow the plants to root. (This method is used in schools too, to grow beans in cups on windowsills!) After watering their pots using pipettes, the children were able to choose between different seeds we provided for them.
In order to provide the children some visual idea of what to expect, we grew a number of different plant seedlings. Some we put under stress conditions (like not watering) for a few days before the event, in order to illustrate how plants respond to their environments. We showed the children a papaya fruit, how to extract the seeds and what a papaya seedling would look like in a few weeks’ time. We also brought in some peppers from the supermarket from which we had grown pepper plants in preparation.
The favourite, however, was the fast growing buckwheat. With its unusual, triangular seeds and very pretty white flowers these plants attracted the most curiosity from the children and many chose to use them for their experiment. After placing some seeds into each pot they then chose different treatments. For example, by adding salt or healthier, low-sodium salt to one pot each, they would be able to see if plants also benefited from a low sodium diet like humans. This mimics the types of experiments we conduct in our labs. Each step in their experiment was meticulously documented by the children in a professional spreadsheet that we brought for them. Here they were able to note the layout of their experiment and make observations about when plants would germinate and how well they would grow. They were able to take their experiment home to observe the results.
You can set up your own plant growth test if you like. Below you can see a short tutorial on how to do it.
Overall, I thought the events were a tremendous success. I enjoyed engaging with people about my research and showing children how fascinating plants are. As a scientist I am constantly working on gaining knowledge which can help to improve the quality of human food or to improve yield. Much of my work however takes decades to translate into anything that benefits the general public. Engagement events like this enable me to immediately give something back to ordinary people. I also aspire to become a role model for children interested in becoming researchers themselves. I would love to stimulate interest in plants or science in general and am always happy to answer any questions on how to become a researcher. My ultimate goal would be to have helped someone in their decision to follow an education into science and become a researcher themselves!
In the main hall at Science in the Park we had the Lego Sequencer, a Lego model of a nanopore sequencer of the kind we use to sequence the DNA of organisms. Sequencing DNA allows us to find out what makes organisms both unique and similar. Inside our Lego Sequencer were a Raspberry Pi, some sensors and a motor. Children had a sheet of plant properties – size, colour, bushiness – and a code of coloured beads to represent those particular properties. Children could assemble a ‘DNA sequence’ of those magnetic coloured beads, then offer them up to the sequencer, which would pull them through, read the colours and display this on the screen with what it thought the plant would look like. Children can then compare the computer version to their drawing of what they thought it would look like. This activity, being right by the main doors of Wollaton Hall was incredibly busy – we lost count at 500 children and at peak time the table was crowded with families 3 deep listening enrapt to our principal volunteer explaining DNA and sequencing to them.
This was a learning experience for me as much as the children! Don’t forget the power supply for a computer and monitor was the first lesson, or you’ll start late. Talking all day to hundreds of people is tiring and all-consuming – I don’t recall eating lunch; being sustained by coffee and chocolate eggs. Taking what we do in the rarefied atmosphere of academia and tuning it for ages 3 upwards is hard! The people we talk to day-in-day-out are so well versed in what we do that stepping back and describing what DNA is, rather than some of its more esoteric characteristics, is much harder than it sounds! People who can master that have an incredible skill. This brings me to the most important lesson I learnt. Find someone who can do that! I lucked out by being given Dr Leora Hadas, from the Department of Cultural, Media and Visual Studies, who was awesome in rapidly understanding the sequencer, having seen it for the first time on the day, and getting a series of talking points together that were pitched perfectly at the audience in front of her. And I learnt to be flexible – different people got different things out of the experience. Some had no idea about DNA and sequences, and I like to think they went away with some insight into DNA, whereas others arrived having been taught about DNA already, and I hope that they went away with a better insight into what we do in the lab.
The Future Food Beacon will be at Wonder on June 15! Come along and find out more about our research then!