Science - Stop the superbug!

16th November 2012 at 00:00
Role-playing a deadly outbreak at a Royal Institution workshop

The tension was palpable: we knew the results of our task could mean the difference between life and death.

Yet the brief was simple: analyse strains of Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria to calculate whether they will merely cause a mild case of strep throat or transmit a potentially deadly episode of necrotising fasciitis. But we had only a few hours to discern this critical difference and the clock was ticking for my team of "clinical bacteriologists".

The setting was a three-hour workshop on bacterial evolution at the Royal Institution's Young Scientist Centre, which introduced my 15-year-old pupils to the kind of advanced laboratory work that they cannot experience in the classroom.

The facilities and equipment - including laboratory centrifuges and gel electrophoresis apparatus - helped to make this role play realistic. In fact, it gave my pupils an unprecedented opportunity to imagine themselves in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) career.

As a guest of this session I also found it enormous fun to wear a lab coat and gloves, use micro pipettes to collect fragments of the bacteria's DNA and electrify these samples in a gel in order to analyse them. The whole setting was very realistic.

By comparing these fragments with known strains of bacteria, learners could decide whether the Streptococcus pyogenes they were studying was part of a relatively innocuous strain or a flesh-eating bacteria that has developed antibiotic resistance - colloquially known as a "superbug".

The Royal Institution offers a series of hands-on science and engineering workshops for pupils. Recent ones have included Good Clean Fun, where learners performed their own experiments on commercial shampoo, and a forensics workshop where pupils investigated a fictional crime scene.

But the workshops are also inspiring in terms of what you might do back at school. Could you engage your learners in similar role plays and transform your classroom into a creative world of scientific careers? Get them to act as forensic scientists investigating the scene of a murder, or mimic a group of environmental scientists doing field work to investigate the effects of global warming in your local area. They could even become astronomers and attempt to spot unknown galaxies with projects such as Galaxy Zoo (

Alessio Bernardelli is a TES subject adviser. For more information about the Royal Institution, visit

What else?

For more inspiring ideas, check out The Royal Institution's resources on the TES website.


Try raj.nandhra's seven lesson plans for a unit of work on controlling infectious diseases.


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