Mini-Beasts Microbiology Activity

20 Jan

This activity was part of the workshops I ran back in October and it was my mini-beastsfavourite practical in the session. During the workshops each activity was related to a university degree course and this one was related to Microbiology. It involves viewing protozoa, nematodes and algae under a microscope and it’s a real crowd pleaser. I had two cultures, one enriched with algae and the other enriched with protozoa.

First we discussed the different types of single-celled organisms and I explained that we had protazoa and algae (plus a few nematodes – not single-celled!), which are a lot larger than bacteria and viruses. The students were given microscopes slides labelled A and B. On the white board/powerpoint there were numbered pictures of organisms that could be seen in either of the samples.  The students had to identify which organisms from the board were in which sample.

A colleague told me about the cultures you can buy from this great company, MP900439410sciento. They’re really reasonably priced but it’s still probably more than most schools would pay for what would only be one or two experiments. This means the chances of the students having seen something similar are quite slim. They look great on most school microscopes but if you are taking this activity into a school, rather than doing it with your own microscopes, ask if you can use their best ones. In one school we used their KS3 (as opposed to KS4) and although they still looked ok, it wasn’t as amazing as when we used KS4 microscopes.

These are the cultures I used in this activity, which allowed me to have two distinct samples for the students could compare:

If you don’t need two different samples this mixed culture is visible under school microscopes and is a bit cheaper:

The algae are beautiful, colourful in all shapes and sizes. The protozoa really move around a lot, which is great to watch!

I’ve also done other Cell Biology themed workshops at university with these cultures where KS3 students used university microscopes to visualise these as examples of single-celled organisms (the protozoa do have nematodes in though) and compared them to bacteria and their own cheek cells.

Whatever you decide to do with these cultures, they are lovely to use and can really enthuse students about Biology.


Working on Workshops

30 Dec

It’s been a very long time since I posted but the ol’ PhD work has been catching up with me of late (I’m now in my fourth and final year –eek!). I do want to put out a series of posts about some workshops I ran back in October though, before the final months in lab and the writing up takes hold.

The workshop was funded by the Biochemical Society and involved several small but exciting Biology practicals coupled with short videos of people who’ve studies Bio-sciences (see this earlier post). The aim of the workshop was to enthuse students about science and help them see a link between a subject they enjoy, higher education and a possible real world career. The students competed for points and during the activities and the team at the end with the most points won.

During the introduction I wanted to challenge the view of what a scientist looks like so I got the groups to describe a typical scientist. In every workshop, with a bit of directed questioning, each group described the carton on the right. scientist stereotype and nickI explained that scientists don’t look like this. Then showed a picture of my friend @Nick_A_Johnson (with his permission of course) and that got a laugh. More importantly though I wanted to make the point some scientists do have crazy hair and glasses but equally some don’t. Some are fat, some are thin. Some are old, some are young. It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are – it’s your ability to think and enjoy science that matters. I then went on to point out they would see lots of different types of people who studied science in the videos throughout the workshop and this would also help them get an idea of some of the jobs available for those who go into Biology.

There were several activities in the workshop, which I will post about individually in case you want to try them, but here I will highlight a few things I learnt while running this style of workshop:

Workshops have a different atmosphere when you’re in school.

I’m used to running workshops and sessions in the university or museum, where you’re on your own turf. Often as a result the students are a little out of their comfort zone and impressed by their surroundings. The upshot is they’re much more likely to behave. I didn’t have any huge behaviour issues in my sessions but I soon realised the students are a bit more relaxed and a lot more chatty when you’re in their territory (school) and I needed to approach things slightly differently.

Advice: If you’re in a similar position (i.e. a researcher going out into schools to run a workshops or activity) establish the rules at the start of the session. Something that worked well for me was to tell the students at the start of the session that when I raised my arm I needed them to be quiet and listen for instructions. If they couldn’t hear the instructions then we wouldn’t get through as much fun stuff. Whenever I did this, students would see and tell their team mates to be quiet. I did plan on deducting points for teams that were talking but luckily the arm up technique worked really well and it never came to that

Start the session with your strongest activity

This sound like a no brainer, but in my first session I saved my favourite activity until the end as a treat. What I realised was that the students were the most animated and enthusiastic during this activity and if I had put it at the start it would have really set a nice tone for the rest of the workshop. I changed the running order for the following workshops and it really made a difference. The students were equally enthusiastic about some of the later activities that were less hands-on because their attitude to the whole workshop was very positive.

Advice: If you’re doing a workshop with lots of activities pick your strongest activity and put it at the start of the session. Also, don’t talk for too long at the start – get them up and doing something. If the students have to sit and listen for too long they might zone out. Obviously you need an introduction and a background to the science, but you can go into further detail and engage the students in discussion throughout the workshop. I find a ten minute introduction with plenty of questions to keep the students engaged usually works well.


I do think there are some things that are incredibly difficult to evaluate from a one off workshop, particularly in relation to long lasting effects upon students’ perceptions of science and HE. There are however, really practical things you can get pointers on. For example, after my first workshop the feedback was that there were too many videos (seven in total originally) and that the last activity was their favourite. This meant I had feedback I could put into practice and improve the workshop. I reduced the number of videos in subsequent workshops and as a result the feedback about them changed to become very positive. In my experience negative feedback is almost always constructive and can be really helpful. Plus any positive feedback you might get is always lovely to read!

I also found when evaluating the students’ opinions on things like HE and science I should have used more close ended questions, where you pick an option, rather than open ended questions where you write an opinion. Using the latter meant although they were interesting, the answers were difficult to analyse.

Advice: Evaluate as much as possible and put the feedback into practice. Think carefully about the questions you’re asking beforehand and how you’ll be able to use the answers.

So I think that’s everything I can think of in terms of general things I’ve learned from running the outreach workshops. The workshops were so much fun to run and the students seem to really enjoy them. I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in going into schools to get involved – most schools are really happy when researchers are willing to come out to them. If you’re interested in funding an activity both the Biochemical Society (click here) and Physiology Society (click here) offer funding for these types of events.

All of this post is based on my personal experience and different approaches work for different people. So do you have any experiences and advice you’d like to share? Comment below!

x-change podcast

29 Aug

Next week is the British Science Festival in Aberdeen. I’m really excited to be going as there’s some absolutely awesome stuff going on. Hopefully you’ll be able to come along to one of the many events taking place. If however Aberdeen is a bit too far afield to visit, you should check out all the highlights on the British Science Association x-change podcast and blog.

There’s a daily podcast (Tuesday-Saturday) will be a recording of the live show, presented by Richard Hollingham and held in the Spiegeltent  (swing by if you’re around!). It rounds up the most exciting, interesting and intriguing things happening at the festival. There’s also the x-tra podcast, which will include some really exciting guests from the festival and there’ll be loads of updates on the blog from me and the rest of the fab x-change team.

You can listen to the podcast and read the blog on the podbean site ( or follow us on twitter (#thexchange and tweets from @TheSiSTeam).

FLS Open Day

26 Jun

This Saturday 30th there is going to be a Community Open Day in the University of Manchester Michael Smith Building.  This happens to be the building where I spend most of my waking life attempting to get my experiments to work and my cells that grow in dishes  to behave (they rarely do). On Saturday, the atmosphere is going to be very different in here though*, as the Faculty of Life Sciences is opening the doors to the lab and inviting everyone to come in and have a look around. If you’re interested in science, what scientists get up to or just fancy a day out doing something different – come on down, the price is right (it’s totally FREE)!
Along side a chance to look round the labs and get a feel for the cutting edge research that is done here at The University of Manchester, there will be loads of fun activities including:

  •    Painting with maggots
  •    Making edible cells out of cookies
  •    Meeting live amphibians
  •    Learning how leeches are used in medicine
  •    Finding out how the heart works

There’ll also be a tent for the lit’uns with creepy crawly crafts and face painting. The Michael Smith Building is number 71 on this map, or you can follow the footprints on the pavement from the Manchester Museum.

Hope to see you there…

*more fun


9 May

My favourite thing on the internet at the moment definitely has to be SciShow. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out. This youtube station has a whole tonne of awesomeness in the form of informative, witty and surprising science videos.

Now I know what you’re thinking; ‘Liz you’re a scientist, why would you want to watch science videos in your free time?’ Well I’ll tell you why – I’m a geek. Only joking, it’s because scientists don’t know that much about science.

That might seem like a contradiction but what I mean is that, unless you’re a polymath, as a scientist you tend to know a lot about your specific bit of science but not that much about the other bits. Let’s not forget science encompasses how everything in the entire universe works. That’s quite a lot for anyone to learn and remember.  So although I know a quite a bit about cell biology and a fair amount of  general biology, the further you get away from what I research the less I tend to know. This is why I love SciShow, there’s so much interesting stuff on there about physics, geology, chemistry, the history of science and more.

Everything is explained really clearly and the presenter is very funny. So whether you’re a scientist, a teacher or someone who has a vague interest in science, I definitely recommend you give it a look. Even if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll probably learn something. But you probably will enjoy it.

Musical DNA

10 Apr

Last year I did a stand at the Faculty of Life Sciences Community Open Day called ‘Musical DNA’. As the name might suggest the activity involves music and DNA, a match made in 4 note heaven!

There’s going to be another FLS community day on the June 30th in the Michael Smith Building. If you have an interest in Biology, have ever wondered what research lab is like or just fancy a fun day out I stronglyrecommend coming down . It’s free and if last year’s event was anything to go by it’ll be an awesome day.

The Message

Each 'side' or strand of DNA can act as a template to make a new complete DNA molecule.

But back to musical DNA; the activity is based around the concept that DNA has 4 bases named A, T, C and G, which are complimentary in that A always pairs with T and C always pairs with G. The bases pair up down the centre of the DNA’s double helix. Imagine you were to untwist DNA’s double helix, so rather than looking like a spiral staircase it looked like a ladder, and then yanked it apart into two strands. Each strand would have one set of bases. Now imagine you take one of the strands away. Because you know that A matches with T and C matches with G, you can rebuild the other strand so you had a complete DNA helix again.

This is the way your cells make two copies of DNA when one cell needs to divide into two. We all started from a single fertilised egg with one copy of our DNA. That single cell has given rise to the trillions of cells that make up our body. Every time a new cell is made, the DNA is copied by breaking the DNA apart into two strand and building up the other half of each strand.

The Activity

Use this worksheet  to work out the complimentary strand. Once you’ve done that you can play the complementary ‘Strand 2’ on the labelled keyboard.
Label the following keys (pictured left);

Strand 1 (Lower) ->

C = C      E = G

F = T      G = A

Strand 2 (Upper)->

C = C      D = A

E = T      G = G

WARNING: Turns out the only famous song that contains just 4 notes is ‘Mary had a little lamb’. If you choose to do this activity be prepared for that song to be stuck in your head for a week.

My good friend Louise Walker (follow her on twitter @Louise_P_Walker) worked out what tune to use and how to label the notes. This was very fortunate as anyone who has heard my attempts karaoke can tell you I do not have a musical bone in my body. For those who are musically inclined ‘Strand 1’ can also be played at the same time and should complement the tune. I’m pretty sure you could extrapolate/differentiate the  activity to include chords that could correspond to amino acids coded by DNA, but that seemed a bit much for a table top activity at the open day. If you do try it and it works please let me know by commenting below, contacting me here or tweeting me @Bio_Fluff.

So there you go, DNA can be musical!

National Science and Engineering Week – Invasion! Workshop

13 Mar

Captain Science Reporting for duty: Leading the White Blood Cells is a tough job but someone's got to do it. Photo by @Mark_K_Quinn

National Science and Engineering Week is in full swing and the Manchester Science Fair kicked off today. Nick Johnson (Follow him on twitter: @Nick_A_Johnson) and I have designed a workshop called Invasion! The main portion of the workshop revolves around a quiz game in which the group is split up into 4 teams; B-Cells, T-Cells, E.Coli and Flu Virus. A member of each team is nominated to play on a giant game board set out in the middle of the room. The aim is for the other members of the team to answer quiz questions by buzzing in. If they answer questions correctly the team earns points which allows their player to move around the board. The white blood cells (B and T-cells) are dressed up as soldiers in the game – defending the body. The pathogens wear brightly coloured wigs, obviously because if E.coli was 5 foot tall it would definitely have a green curly hair.

The E.coli outfit: This is an actual microscope image of an E.coli

The players move around the ‘blood stream’  whenever their team gets a question right. The E.coli, which start at the mouth are aiming to get to the gut to infect it. The Flu start at the nose and are aiming to infect the lungs.  The aim of the B-cells is to intercept the invaders with antibodies and the T-cells aim to kill them outright.  The full rules are in the power point (pdf) which you can download here or on the resources page. Based on the first two workshops Nick ran this morning the game works really well with the white blood cells ganging up together to drive the invaders back to the mouth/nose. We used laminated red paper and posters to make the game board, if you want to print some out yourself they can be downloaded from the resources page.

We use an icebreaker of Antigen vs. Antibody, which is basically rock paper scissors – if the White blood cell wins that represents an antibody recognising an antigen, if the pathogen wins that represents the pathogen evading the host defences. It’s just a quick game to get them up and moving – again, there’s a better description in the power point.

We finish the session with a ‘Modify my Microbe‘ exercise that Nick designed. It was a great way to finish of the session and involves the students customising a microbe of their choice – picking antigens, genomes and specialisations like flagella.

I’m really looking forward to the next couple of days delivering more of the sessions and having a go at playing Captain Science!