active learning, Biology, coding, DNA, education, outreach, PEDAGOGY, science, teaching, University of Sussex

Ever wonder how to decode DNA? Learn how with our hands-on puzzle.

2 DNA 14-19 yr olds

We built a hands-on puzzle to allow students to explore how the genetic information stored within DNA is decoded by the body. In two weeks a small team will be taking this to the South of England BIG BANG STEM festival to help 12-18 year-olds and their teachers explore this for themselves.

This is a repeat activity for us at the School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex. Each year the team changes and new staff and students encounter public engagement for the first time. It is always fun for us and the participants and everyone learns from it.

What are the secrets of a successful outreach experience? I recommend the following:

  • Go as a team.
  • For hands-on activities with 100’s of visitors it is more effective to work as a team.
  • Harness enthusiasm.
  • One person needs to start it going, but hopefully the team will sustain this.
  • Obtain funding. Relatively small amounts will help if you want a display or hands-on activity.
  • Offer your services to an existing Science Event – they know their audience and have event management experience. Try our local STEM network – you can become a stem ambassador and access advice, pre-designed activities and insurance. Plan your content several months in advance with your team. Expensive research equipment will be of little use to you – don’t even rely on having wi-fi available on the day. I suggest identifying between one and three key concepts that you want to get across and then get inventive. Test your ideas and get feedback from nearby non-scientists.
  • Finally, hold a final planning meeting at least a week in advance and have detailed lists of responsibilities and a time schedule finalized.
  • Be flexible. After all this detailed planning you will need to be prepared to be flexible on the day, things will go off-schedule and you will have to adapt as you go. If possible have one team member available as a runner to deal with the unexpected glitches.

After the event discuss the feedback with your team, plan any changes for the next time you run it and book in for the following year – once you have experienced public engagement activities you will want more!

DNA detectives will be presenting at the BigBang South East Festival on 27th June 2019.


Professor Alison Sinclair’s profile page

Sinclair Lab website


active learning, Biology, education, immunology, microbiology, outreach, PEDAGOGY, science, teaching, University of Sussex

Short Burst Activities in Lectures Part 1. Herd Immunity

Short Burst Activities – Introduction.

My teaching philosophy is that the most effective teaching fosters an active participation in learning and in my roles as a University professor and as a leader of outreach activities I consider myself primarily as a learning facilitator.

A worked example makes it easier for others to understand how readily this can be achieved and so I am compiling a series of ‘how to’ guides for ‘Short Burst Activities’ within lecture theatre teaching teaching of Bio-Sciences. Some are very specific but others could be readily adapted to other topics.

I would be greatful for feedback and if you would like me to add your activities to the blog, or add a link to them please contact me.

Part 1. Herd Immunity

Learning Objectives: to illustrate the value of herd immunity (year 1 BSc)


In advance bring a method of identifying a set of students eg napkin on head.

  • Give a set (approx half the class) of napkins to some students in middle of the front row
  • Instructions are to take one and pass backwards (2 minutes)
  • If available give a toy to two students on left hand side to represent vunerable people
  • Set an infection going in one corner of the class (right hand corner in illustration)
  • Instructions are to stand up when infected and to pass the infection by shaking hands with anyone you can reach easily
  • After a couple of minutes you will see that the majority on the right hand side are infected and none on left hand side are
  • If your lecture/teaching space is not full then the immunization will be patchier and the results less clear (as in life)
  • Watch the spread of infection and pause transmission at an early stage to illustrate some herd protection then let it continue to show a poor outcome
  • Then either cluster the students together to re-run or show the diagram of the outcome with good coverage

Screenshot 2017-05-14 16.28.41.png

active learning, Biology, education, employability skills, HEA, PEDAGOGY, science, teaching, University of Sussex

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” – how to increase student’s confidence in their employability skills

My goal is to help students to develop increased confidence in their abilities to think and adapt and by doing this to enhance their employability skills.

Why do it?

The ability to apply prior knowledge to different situations is a skill that is highly valued by employers but the confidence to do this does not come naturally to some students. This will negatively impact on them in employment interviews and when faced with a new task in their first job.

An essential step to becoming an independent researcher requires a transition between simply following a fail-safe set of instructions to being able to adapt a known approach to solve a new problem. During the early days of their research career, many current scientists faced a sink-or-swim situation when they were confronted with a new problem. Although this trial-by-fire is effective at identifying those scientists most capable of making the transition independently, some talented scientists will fall by the wayside simply because they lack confidence in their abilities to adapt.

How did I do it?

I developed the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” strategy as a mid-way approach between providing fail-safe instructions and allowing students to sink-or-swim on their own.

To illustrate this approach, first imagine a detailed step-by-step guide to preparing a simple dish – for example glazed carrots. When all of the equipment is listed, all ingredients provided, and every step is described in detail – and in picture form – and probably with a youtube link – no decisions are left for the potential cooks; no recollection of prior skills or adaptation of prior experience is needed to achieve success. A uniform product is produced with no direct supervision needed. If this approach was used in a cookery school, it would provide an economic way to deliver the teaching of glazed carrots but it would miss out on helping students to develop important employability skills.

By using the principles of “Recall, Adapt, Apply” to change the instruction we can dramatically increase the employability skill set that is developed. Before re-writing the recipe we need to know the prior experience of the students. Let’s assume that in a previous session the students learnt how to peel, chop and boil potatoes. Re-writing the recipe for glazed carrots we can simplify the instructions where we expect students to recall information, adapt to the new situation and then apply it. For this example we could ask them to peel the carrots (not stating the equipment required), chop the carrots (not stating which knife or board is required), boil the chopped carrots until tender (not stating the equipment, the amount of water or the timing required), then strain (not stating the equipment required). For the next stage the students in this class have no relevant prior experience, so the amount of butter needs to be stated, as does information on which pan to use to melt it, when to add the sugar how long to heat it and when to combine with the cooked carrots. The “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach delivers the same product of a dish of glazed carrots but it also develops the additional employability skills of problem solving, using your initiative and being self-motivated, organizational skills and an ability to learn and adept.

I trialed the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach for a series of practicals undertaken by second year BSc Biomedical Science students at the University of Sussex during 2012-15. I added on-the-spot calculations, analysis and presentation of complex data and required hand-drawn figures illustrating the principle of the method to be drawn during the session.

It worked. An evaluation of the marks obtained for relevant questions during the end-of-year exam were compared with the average for the module and were all higher.

Now try it!

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” is a simple but also a valuable approach. But it takes more work on the part of the teacher and more work on the part of the students so you may not find it to be immediately popular. This year, I intend to measure any difference in student’s confidence with a range of employability skills and their ability to undertake the on-the-spot calculations before and after the teaching. Showing them how their ability increases and how their confidence grows (if it does) should help to sell the value of the “Recall, Adapt, Apply” approach to them as well as boosting their confidence in their own abilities.

“Recall, Adapt, Apply” can be applied to any STEM practical or project, please let me know your experiences if you decide to try it.

This study was presented at the Higher Education Academy (HEA) conference “Inspire to succeed: Transforming teaching and learning in STEM” 28–29 January 2016