Genomics from the classroom to society

With complex and evolving subjects such as genomics, upskilling teachers is a powerful way to support science learning and engagement. Wellcome Connecting Science explain how they used a free, international online course to reach this group and the community beyond.
Genomics from the classroom to society

Genomics is a rapidly expanding area of science, with its applications impacting on all areas of society – from policymaking to conservation. With genomics gradually being incorporated into UK and global science curricula, there comes an increasing need to upskill teachers and educators with the tools and confidence to teach this rapidly developing field.

Wellcome Connecting Science – based at the Wellcome Genome Campus, near Cambridge, UK – aims to enable everyone to explore the impact of genomics on research, health and society. Our Engagement and Society team are aware of the challenges for teachers first hand. During our programme of on-site school visits, and virtual and in-person Continuing Professional Development (CPD), teachers often express interest in cutting-edge genomics but struggle to keep up with this area, and make topics relevant to students. Even teachers with postgraduate biology degrees find the field has moved on significantly since they finished their studies. This lack of confidence is coupled with a shortage of time – teachers often find there are many genomics and biology resources available online, but that they don’t have the time or skills to find the ones most suited to their class, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic.

Upskilling teachers is a powerful technique in science learning and engagement: it can provide teachers with a heightened enjoyment and confidence in teaching, which can ripple out to the students they teach. This ‘train the trainer’ model allows us to reach many more students than we could do by directly engaging with students alone, and provides a long-term, sustained impact on students and communities.

We therefore saw an opportunity to support teachers across the world through a short, distance-learning course. Whilst there are plenty of online courses about the topic of genomics, there were none explicitly designed to support educators teaching genomics. It's for this gap in the market that we created Genomics for Educators – a free online course hosted on FutureLearn.

Why FutureLearn?

Aware of the time and funding constraints teachers are constantly facing, we wanted to minimise barriers to access, and maximise the effectiveness of the course. FutureLearn allows the course to run semi-synchronously: teachers work through three weeks of content together, supporting each other through FutureLearn’s social learning model. This model allows learners on the course to comment and reply to each other, sharing content and answering each other's questions – in essence it allows the course to become a collective and active sharing and learning experience, rather than a passive one.

We also have a Learning and Training team in Connecting Science that specialises in developing courses on FutureLearn, and we provide a free upgrade to learners – giving all learners enrolled on the course free access to the course for a year. We knew it would be key for teachers to be able to keep dipping back into the course throughout the academic year, as they continued to teach these topics.

A Collaborative Approach

The best public engagement is collaborative – drawing upon different experiences, backgrounds and perspectives. Aware that as a Cambridge-based organisation our content might easily be English curricula-centric, we approached the team at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)’s European Learning Laboratory for the Life Sciences to collaborate with us to create a curricula-crossing and globally relevant course. Closer to home, we also brought in the UK’s STEM Learning with their wealth of CPD experience, and enlisted a number of teachers in the UK and Europe to provide their on-the-ground perspective and review the course before its launch.

From the Classroom to Society

Whilst this course was mapped around international biology curricula, we also wanted to take a step back and think about how genomics and its applications impact other areas of life – in the classroom, and beyond.

The first week focuses on genomics in the classroom: how genomics applications are used; how to tackle common misconceptions in genomics; pedagogical aspects such as pre- and pro- genomics learning in primary school; as well as activities and resources that support understanding of core genomics concepts. Here, we were particularly aware of the barriers that schools often face in running practical lessons – from finance to lack of equipment – and so highlighted paper- and computer-based activities that reduce these barriers.

“Wow stuff. Wish I had seen the paper-based PCR activities sooner as I would definitely have used these in class today. One to bank for next time.”

In the second week, we take a step back from the biology curriculum, and think about where genomics relates to ethics, careers, and extracurricular activities. Genomics in the news is often framed around controversial or attention-grabbing headlines, and this was something we wanted to address. Enlisting the help of our Connecting Science colleague, genetic counsellor and researcher, Dr Jonathan Roberts, we discussed how genomics links to ethical matters, and how topics such as risk can be broken down in the classroom. This section sparked a plethora of discussion between learners, from sharing ethics-related activities and the lack of inclusion of ethics in the UK science curricula, to individual learners' thoughts about ‘hot topics’ in genomics.

“The discussions around ethics are the highlight for me – it has opened new avenues of thought and I now want to go and see how I can build those into our curriculum.”

The second week also features case studies on how to include genomics and research in a school environment. Importantly, we want to highlight how teachers can obtain funding to support these often expensive endeavours: Jon Hale, a teacher in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, showcases his project involving the sequencing of chloroplasts from daffodil cultivars by students, and how he approached funding this project.

To bring the course together, the third week focus on teachers creating their own activity, or building a lesson plan based on pre-existing activities. After highlighting and discussing techniques for evaluating and balancing activities in a lesson plan, the learners are tasked with creating their own activity or lesson plan, which they then submit for ‘peer review’. This process on FutureLearn allows learners to review and comment on each other's work – a key benefit of social learning. This not only ensures that every learner gets feedback on their idea (which is not something that our team could easily have offered), but also allows learners to see how others approached this task.

“Peer review can feel daunting but I think both giving and receiving feedback are valuable tools.”

So, what have we learnt from running this course? With over 800 learners currently participating, we have already seen a lot of positive feedback and interesting discussion within the course and, as a team, we have gained a heightened understanding of what teachers find useful from such a course. In particular, we found that the social model of learning is very effective in sparking conversations and sharing opportunities between learners.

“Thank you very much for a really well put together course! It was so informative with lots of things to think about and great resources, so thank you again!”

Genomics for Educators is available to join until the end of June 2022, and learners that sign-up before this date will have free access to the course for a year.