Following the impact of the pandemic on young people’s practical experiences, a number of schools were incredibly enthusiastic to work with scientists from JHI and UoD Schools of Life Sciences to solve the DNA sequences of daffodils donated from the Croft 16 National Plant Collection. These daffodils are historically significant having been bred before 1930, some of which go back hundreds of years. This presented an opportunity to investigate whether the chloroplast genome sequences could be used to trace lineage when written records may not be completely reliable.
The data produced by these schools following the methods previously described (Hale, 2020) has been exceptional, however it will be the experiences that these young people have had that will have the greatest impact on their futures. Throughout the year, they have been working alongside scientists and their teachers as equals, collaborating to contribute to scientific knowledge in contrast to their usual role of consumers of knowledge in the classroom. As they progressed through the year, they became more confident with the techniques involved and how the project was coming to fruition across the different schools.
At the heart of the project has been communication. Scientists from the Darwin Tree of Life project at the Wellcome Sanger Institute kindly gave a Christmas Lecture over a video call giving students the opportunity to see how their own research was fitting into the global quest to sequence all life. They then had a wonderful opportunity to present their project plans to Fellows of the Royal Society who sit on the Education Committee at an online student conference just for the Daffodil Project students. The Fellows held nothing back, as they probed their understanding of phylogeny and genetic engineering, but the students had the confidence to give accurate rebuttals.
Undoubtedly the best experience for these students was to be invited to the inaugural Young Researchers Zone within the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition this year. Here they were sharing their science to thousands of people during the week long exhibition. They were seen as equals to the scientists representing the very best of UK research. Do have a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUrPA3E8ggY to see a summary of the exhibition ranges from third thumbs to meteorites. Professor Brian Cox even stopped by to try his hand at micropipetting and chat DNA sequencing with some of the students.
Our students demonstrated excellent public engagement skills, through a number of short activities, hooking the public in with a braille challenge to identify the daffodil to share the idea of using the unseen code, a Lego model of a nanopore with live basecalling and of course some pipette art.
When the student reflected upon the experience of presenting at the Summer Science Exhibition, they really grasped that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. One student even said that this was “life changing”. The value of inviting young people as scientists to these events can never be underestimated and I would implore those that organise conferences to extend their invitations to school-aged students to present their science as scientists.