Bringing bioinformatics to schools with the 4273pi project
4273pi project, one of the largest bioinformatics-at-schools projects in the world, has just published a paper describing the practical lessons learned from the project over the last five years.
Big Data is at the heart of many aspects of modern life, including communications, design, business, finance, manufacturing, transport, engineering, recreation and marketing.
It has also become central to life sciences research. DNA sequences, for example, will be helpful for almost any area of research in biology or medicine.
Analysing and understanding biological data such as DNA is known as bioinformatics. So how might young people begin to understand and engage with Big Data?
The 4273pi bioinformatics education project addresses both these topics head-on, by introducing schools to Big Data - through practical bioinformatics.
Bioinformatics in the Scottish Curriculum
The approach is particularly suited to Scotland, where bioinformatics appears on the Higher Biology and Higher Human Biology curricula.
The 4273pi project, one of the largest bioinformatics-at-schools projects in the world, has reached over 180 schools in Scotland - including approximately 50% of state secondary schools.
With crucial assistance from schools and teachers, the 4273pi project staff and volunteers introduced a new and predominantly female audience to scientific computing.
This included curriculum-linked bioinformatics workshops for classes, events for teachers (online during the pandemic) and guest teaching on initial teacher training programmes.
The workshops use a mix of free public resources online, computers or tablets and the low-cost Raspberry Pi computer to provide a genuine research computing environment to young people.
Expanding the project’s reach
The project’s geographical remit is Scotland, but their Open Educational Resources are also increasingly used around the world.
A paper has just been published describing the project, its aims and motivations, and the practical lessons learned that made it successful over the last five years.
The paper will be useful to the increasing numbers of educators interested in Big Data and bioinformatics at school level.
- Strong links to the curriculum are vital. Develop interesting, real-life case studies that pupils can relate to.
- Engage with teachers while creating and delivering workshops as they have a good understanding of what content will work for their pupils.
- Participate in action research—use experience and feedback to develop resources and make changes when needed.
- Provide training and resources for teachers. This will increase project reach and legacy.
- On school visits, work with teachers. Make sure a teacher is present to cover matters such as pupil well-being or requests to leave the classroom.
- Embed computing activities into the school biology curriculum to help address gender gaps and improve access and exposure to this traditionally male-biased subject.
- Have a diverse delivery team. For example, a mixed-gender team demonstrates the important points that computing is not “just for boys” and biology is not “just for girls.” Other dimensions of diversity are just as important.
Computational skills are increasingly required to manage large and complex biological datasets. Our project provides secondary school pupils with an opportunity to better understand the importance of computation in biology through hands-on workshops. We hope our experiences and lessons learned will encourage and support others interested in bringing practical bioinformatics to schools.
It gave me an insight into a larger, more complicated world.
It was nice and very informative to hear about the kind of jobs you take part in.
Gave me an insight of computer programming which I have never done before.
I enjoyed using the Raspberry Pi.
Felt like a hacker
Real-life science & research for pupils at a level they can understand.
Took an area of the course that was a bit ‘abstract’ and a bit of a mystery and explained it so well that I can go back and re-do these lessons – pupils therefore benefit!
It allowed me to add a relevant interesting activity into my higher human biology teaching rather than just a short time describing what bioinformatics is.
I gained valuable confidence, knowledge and understanding of Bioinformatics. I now feel like I can share this with other staff members and pupils. It was fabulous, thank you!