“The education of young people in science is at least as important, maybe more so, than the research itself.”
Glenn T. Seaborg
This quote by Nobel Prize winning chemist, Glenn Seaborg, perfectly encapsulates the philosophy that drives the European Learning Laboratory for the Life Sciences (ELLS). As the science education department of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), ELLS sets out to bridge the gap between young learners and cutting edge research in the life sciences. One of the initiatives developed by ELLS to help realise their goal was the EMBL School Visits programme. For more than a decade, school groups have been welcomed to EMBL to witness first-hand how a world-class research institute functions, meet scientists and staff of EMBL, and get inspired with all the doors opened through science careers.
Opening our doors to young learners
Since establishing the formal EMBL School Visits programme in 2017, we have successfully engaged school groups from almost 50 schools. A typical tour includes an introduction to EMBL, followed by a presentation by either a scientist or a non-scientific staff member, and a guided tour of an EMBL laboratory and Heidelberg campus. Every visit is designed to cater to the needs of a particular school group; the groups would choose the focus of their visit by selecting varied modules on offer. These modules covered research done at EMBL, a hands-on lab tour, or an exploration of the various careers that one could pursue in the life sciences. All in all, the visits paint a vivid picture of authentic science practises and provide insights into the current and emerging careers in the life sciences. Needless to say, the programme was of great value to students. However, in our third year of running the school visits, the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic rattled the world, making on-site visits impossible. Nonetheless, the show had to go on. It was at this point that the EMBL Virtual School Visits programme was born.
One of the issues that the recent pandemic has highlighted is that science literacy is needed now more than ever. The world adjusted to this ‘new normal’ by moving many aspects of their daily activities to the online domain and ELLS did so as well. Naturally, conducting a tour of a large research facility without being physically present had its share of challenges. But with new challenges came new opportunities; since distance was no longer a factor, the programme could now reach more schools from Europe and beyond and be able to accommodate larger group sizes.
To make the virtual tour as immersive as possible, the team has tried new methods to make for a truly fulfilling visit; the most recent being a live virtual tour of the labs. The students are able to ask questions in real time and get a closer look at anything that catches their eye. The diversity among EMBL scientists and staff is an added benefit, especially with a more diverse audience. When possible, the virtual tours are carried out in the native language of the participating school. The efforts to transition to virtual visits have been fruitful, with the team engaging almost 30 schools in 2021 alone.
The ELLS team never rests on their laurels. Connecting young learners with world class life science research is an endeavour that never ends. Apart from continuously developing new tools, resources, and programmes, the ELLS team is hopeful that once the global pandemic has passed, they can open the doors to school groups for on-site visits once again, in the meantime teachers can bring their students to EMBL virtually by joining one of the upcoming Virtual School Visits.
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