Added bite to science lessons

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Experts in tropical disease are taking parasites into the classroom to bring real microbiology to life for pupils. Douglas Blane reports

You are working in a tropical disease laboratory and your task today is to decide which of three diseases has infected a patient. No symptoms can be seen but you have a blood sample, which you study through a powerful microscope.

"I can't tell yet," says Makhib Choudkhuri, a second-year pupil at Hillhead High, Glasgow, as he alternately peers down the microscope and studies the images he has been given.

Malaria, sleeping sickness and Leishmaniasis are diseases that devastate sub-Saharan Africa, killing millions. They are all caused by parasites, Tansy Hammarton tells the second-year volunteers attending the after- school science club in the school science department. "Last week we were looking at bacteria, remember? This week it's parasites."

Run by scientists from the University of Glasgow - at Hillhead High and Hyndland Secondary - the new clubs aim to deliver, in weekly sessions from September to March. real science from real scientists, who found funding for it and are taking time away from their research to engage with pupils every week.

"We're right on the doorstep of the University of Glasgow and it's a fantastic resource," says biology teacher Jenny Hewitt. "I think teachers should be using it much more."

In this session, the pupils are getting to grips with the organisms Dr Hammarton and her colleagues study every day. Millions of years of evolution have made microscopic parasites subtle, devious, hard to understand and harder still to combat.

One reason is their complex lifestyles, Dr Hammarton explains, as she gives out glass bottles with specimens of the insects in which the parasites spend part of their lives, and through which they are passed from one human to another.

"They're dead, don't worry," she reassures the white-coated kids, hesitant to touch after the graphic disease descriptions they've just been given.

"What you've got there are bottles of mosquitoes, sandflies and tsetse flies," she tells them. "You'll notice one sandfly is fatter than the rest. It has already fed. Its stomach is swollen because it's full of blood."

Science clubs run by scientists are tricky balancing acts. Having more in- depth knowledge, they lack the daily contact with pupils that allows teachers readily to gauge the right level for new learning. So Dr Hammarton and her colleague, Sonya Taylor, developed the Menacing Microbiology science clubs in collaboration with teachers Jenny Hewitt and Joanne Free at Hillhead and Hyndland secondary schools.

Belonging to a research culture that values engagement with schools also eased the mental leaps from cutting-edge to classroom (see panel).

"Engaging with non-scientists and schoolchildren is an important part of our work as scientists these days," Dr Hammarton says.

"I enjoy it. I like trying to make hard science understandable. You have to think about what you explain and how - as well as what people know and don't know."

The science clubs are not just about imparting new knowledge. Engagement means getting your hands dirty, sometimes literally, which is why the Hillhead youngsters wear plastic gloves for the activities, in which they work in small groups to stain slides - using real research techniques - then study them through powerful microscopes, supplied to the school as part of the project.

A nice feature is how comfortable the pupils clearly are with the scientists, both Dr Hammarton and the PhD students, Jamie Hall and Catarina Marque, who help to run the clubs and field many questions - not just about the lab activities, but about themselves, their likes and dislikes and why science excites them.

"We have had a few sessions already," says teacher Jenny Hewitt. "They've been learning about science in the newspapers. Next week they'll visit the university, meet up with Hyndland pupils and see around the labs. Later, they're going to interview the scientists, write it up and deliver presentations. I think it's great for them."

The pupils are equally enthusiastic. "Patient A was difficult," Makhib says. "Patient B was malaria and that was very clear. You could easily see from the shape by comparing with the pictures they gave us. It was hard in some parts, but it was all interesting. I enjoyed it very much."

Tansy Hammarton is a finalist for the title of UK's Most Dedicated STEM Ambassador


Talking with non-scientists about your work and their interests - science engagement - is a vital part of university research, says Dave Barry, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology at the University of Glasgow.

"So our researchers have been coming up with a variety of imaginative ways to create genuine engagement, with adults and with schools."

These include lectures, work-shops, science clubs, science centre displays, comic books and even a purple monster parasite that wended its way through the crowds at Glasgow's West End Festival, and proved a huge hit.

The comic book Parasites!, which tells a complex story in simple words through a medium that appeals to young people, has also been well received.

Methods like these help spread an understanding of what scientists do and why they do it, says Professor Barry: "Parasitic diseases mostly affect poor people, so they are generally neglected by drugs companies. Here at the Wellcome Centre we study what's important and interesting, even if it is not financially profitable.

"We hope these studies will open the door to new ways of controlling the parasites and curing the terrible diseases they cause."

Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology

Parasites! releases2010WTX059836.htm.

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