ABE Ireland’s responses to Covid this year

Teachers at socially distanced training workshop September 2020
Teachers at socially distanced training workshop September 2020

This post was first published by Systems Biology Ireland on https://www.ucd.ie/sbi/news/blog/body,521889,en.html

The Amgen Biotech Experience is the education programme hosted at Systems Biology Ireland. Its aim is to equip teachers to deliver biotechnology labs to students in the classroom. We do this by training teachers in experiments and then lending them the equipment they need to deliver the labs in their school. It’s a very hands-on programme. It encourages teachers and students to get stuck in and work with colleagues. So when Covid-19 related restrictions started to make working side by side impossible, we knew we would have to change how we delivered the programme.

In September - always our busiest month at the start of the school year – we went ahead with in-person teacher training. It is very important that teachers get to handle the equipment when first learning lab techniques. We made the decision to do whatever we had to do to train teachers in person. That meant dramatically reducing the number of teachers at workshops so they could maintain social distancing and work alone rather than in groups.

A few months ago, we didn’t know whether schools would run practical lab classes this school year. Many of the schools were not sure either until after they re-opened in September. Even when we were training teachers they weren’t sure they would be able to run labs themselves. We learnt that schools were told to decide this for themselves, school by school. Some schools had to convert their labs into ordinary classrooms. Others barred students and teachers from sharing equipment or from moving around rooms, all of which made it very difficult to run practical classes. We worried that the demand for equipment loans would be very low this year.

But a lot of schools made it work. We opened the equipment booking form in September. Immediately there as a high demand and now we’re booked solid until the end of the year. Teachers have been great at organising their classes so students can work alone. Some have set up cameras and screens at the front of the class so they can demonstrate techniques without students having to move around the room to watch. We have been impressed at how science teachers have improvised to ensure their students experience practical activities this year.

ABE Ireland usually runs at least one annual workshop to train teachers in PCR. This is one of the “deep dives” we offer experienced teachers. However, the government has advised against any experiments that include cheek swabs. This is part of our PVR lab, so we have ruled out any training in PCR this year.  Instead, we shifted focus to offer bioinformatics as a deep dive topic. ABE Ireland’s new Lab 6 is An Introduction to Genomics and Bioinformatics. The workshop introduces techniques of this cutting-edge area of research and describes some of its uses. Because bioinformatics research doesn’t rely on having access to wet lab rooms, we think it will be of interest to teachers who are unable to run traditional practical lab classes in their schools.

We also focused this year on building our online resources for teachers. This includes talks about careers in science and research. Schools appreciate researchers coming in, or Zoom-ing in!, to their classes to tell students about different career pathways in research. Any researcher interested in this should get in touch with Sile at sile.lane@ucd.ie