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A-level Science Masterclasses

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The masterclass series brought 30 A-level biology students together over the course of a term, for a series of 4 lectures and small-group discussions introducing the students to the topic of global food security.

The format of each session used a model successfully developed at the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School, combining a talk by a guest lecturer, small group discussion with a tutor, followed by a return to the lecture theatre to pose questions to the speaker.

The series was opened by a talk by the Director of the Centre for Global Equality, outlining the importance of young scientists choosing an area of research which could benefit the world.

We believe that many of the 21st century’s global challenges need plant scientists as part of the team to tackle them. We want to inspire a new generation of committed, passionate students to take on these challenges.

Students were encouraged to share what they had learned at their colleges and schools, with two schools facilitating their students in giving a presentation. Students were also encouraged to consider an Extended Project on a topic they had heard about.

Some of the outcomes were rather unexpected: two of the students reported that they had become vegetarians as a result of the series.

  • Lead organisation
    • University of Cambridge: Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University Botanic Garden
  • Project aims
    • Talented young biologists in the UK often assume that the best way to contribute to the world is by becoming a doctor. Our series aimed to encourage students to think about plant science as an important and interesting area of biology, and one that would allow them to tackle global challenges.

      We wanted:

      ~ To encourage A-level students to apply for biology degrees with a substantial proportion of plant science within it

      ~ To encourage students to begin their subsequent biology degrees with a positive attitude towards the plant science modules

      ~ To encourage students to do an Extended Project on a topic related to plant science or food security (backed up by the IntoBiology.org website)

      ~ To prompt students to share what they had learned with friends and fellow students

      ~ To demonstrate to teachers that A-level students could be engaged by plant science

  • Audience
    • The Masterclasses were targeted at students studying A-level biology at colleges and schools in the Cambridge region. We worked with the biology teachers to try to ensure that the participants were not aspiring medics, but those who were considering studying a broad biology or natural sciences degree. This was both for the students benefit – we felt that those who were already focused on medicine would get less from the series – and for our own – we could not achieve our stated aim of encouraging students to opt for plant science modules in their biology degree if students were studying medicine.

      The male-female split was roughly 1 to 2. Students came from 7 institutions, with the substantial majority from the state sector. This included two mature students from a large regional FE college.

      Teachers were also invited to attend, as were trainee teachers from the University.

  • How it started
    • The Masterclass series grew out of a new project of the Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme, focused on inspiring 16-21 year olds about plant science.

      We based the format on a long-running successful plant science Summer School, also run by the team.

      Botanic Gardens around the UK are finding it harder to encourage secondary schools to run organised visits to them: by running an after-school session, we hoped to bypass the constraints of the curriculum and work directly with those students who were already enthusiastic about biology.

      From the start, this was intended to be a project that could be replicated at other Universities and Botanic Gardens. While taking advantage of our strengths (such as the building’s location and our good relationship with a large local sixth-form college) we therefore focused on elements that were not unique to Cambridge.

  • Partnerships
    • The input of many people within the University went towards making this a successful event.

      University staff with a commitment to high-quality teaching helped us select our tutors.

      The tutors themselves were key to the success of the project. These were all PhD students or early career plant scientists with experience in teaching undergraduates. Their enthusiasm and willingness to share their own experiences as scientists inspired the young people.

      In turn, local science teachers worked with us to promote the event to their students, to select those who they felt would get most out of it, and to allow them opportunities to share their learning with peers.

      The speakers were carefully selected from four different departments across the University. We attended a large number of lectures, and chose those speakers who we felt could best engage with the A-level students, and whose talks could contribute to a coherent whole. The speakers were all generous in fitting the Masterclass around their pre-existing commitments.

      The tone for the series was set by an opening talk by the Director of the Centre for Global Equality.

      The final session, an optional session to find out more about how to make a difference to food security in Cambridge, was run by Cambridge Hub, an organisation that co-ordinates charitable activities among University students.

      To reach a broader audience, we partnered with a podcast on food security created by two post-docs in the Department of Plant Sciences, called ‘Greedy Planet’.

  • What did you do?
    • Each of the four sessions in the series followed the same format. Students arrived at the Sainsbury Lab from 4.30pm onwards for informal tea and coffee. This set a relaxed tone at what could be an intimidating venue for teenagers.

      After a brief introduction to set the topic for the evening, the speaker gave a 40 minute talk. Since each speaker was from Cambridge University, they knew each other’s work, and were able to refer back to what previous sessions had covered. This was unexpected, but very beneficial.

      The students then gathered into tutorial groups of 5-6 people, each led by a PhD student or early career researcher with experience of teaching undergraduates. To give an informal atmosphere, tutorial sessions were accompanied by pizza.

      During this time, the podcast team interviewed the speaker.

      This was then followed by a 20 minute Q&A session. Each group agreed one question to pose to the speaker, and students took it in turns to represent their group.

      Where possible, we asked the speaker to suggest some optional pre-session reading to introduce the students to their area of research. This was appreciated by the students, and allowed us to deepen the impact on the students, by effectively doubling their exposure to the material. We also emailed students links to relevant news stories. 

      To increase the potential impact, we invited students’ teachers to attend the lectures. This would both allow the teachers to understand what the series involved, and enable them to increase their subject knowledge.

  • Evaluation
    • As the format was based on our Summer School, we were more confident that it would be successful than we would otherwise have been. However, we ran an initial pilot session for a small group of A-level students and their teachers, using the same format of lecture, tutorial and Q&A session. We gathered written feedback from students, and verbal feedback from teachers, the tutors and the lecturer. This was used to adjust the timings for the full series.

      We ran a pre and post series survey, to assess the change in students’ attitudes towards plant science. Knowing from past experience that students are unlikely when signing up to an opportunity to say that they are anything less than very committed to that area of biology, we asked questions that would allow us to evaluate what areas of biology they found most personally interesting and important.

      Students gave short immediate feedback at the end of every session, indicating what had gone well that week and what we could improve for next time. We also asked students how they had shared what they had learned in the previous session: this was intended partly as a prompt that they should be sharing it with others.   

  • Key lessons learnt
    • Having based this on a long running and successful engagement activity, the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School, we were reasonably confident that this would be successful. We had consciously played to our strengths – including our location near the station and two large sixth form colleges – allowing us to run an after-school session.

      For future Masterclasses, we would clarify expectations with the teachers recruiting students. We had recruited fewer students than our original target (30 rather than 40), and were initially unsure as to why.  Over the course of the series, it became clear that teachers had felt that, given the series was held at the University of Cambridge, it was aimed only at very high achieving students. This made the standard of the tutorial sessions impressively high, but was not our intention.

      Despite our request that the series was not aimed at future medics, we did get some aspiring medics on the series (this said, those students took part with notable enthusiasm and commitment).

      The sessions officially began at 5pm, in order to allow students from more distant colleges to travel. However, students from the nearest college tended to arrive much earlier, shortly after their studies had ended. We therefore needed to make space available to them from 4.20pm onwards.   

  • Keys to making it work
    • We asked the students what they thought were the most critical aspects for the series’ success.

      Overwhelmingly, the students felt that choosing a ‘current and interesting’ topic - food security and climate change - was what had made the series work. They spoke very highly of the calibre of the lecturers, and appreciated that the lectures were gave different perspectives on a common theme.

      The tutors made a strong impact on the students, and the tutorial sessions were frequently cited as valuable. They allowed students to identify any misunderstandings, and to exchange ideas with peers from other colleges. One particular tutor clearly developed a tremendous rapport with his group.

      The pizza was appreciated by the students, and we felt contributed to giving the relaxed atmosphere that we wanted.

      From the perspective of the organising team, a large part of our success was due to the whole-hearted support of all those who were involved, from the Lab’s reception team to the lecturers themselves.