The West of England NHS Genomic Medicine Centre (WEGMC) and the University of the West of England (UWE) have partnered to develop an outreach activity on genomics for schools in Bristol, Bath, Somerset and South Gloucestershire. WEGMC is led by University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust.
The aim of the activity is for pupils to understand the purpose of the NHS 100,000 Genomes Project, which is a ground-breaking initiative, launched by David Cameron, the Prime Minister in 2012. The project involves collecting and 'decoding' 100,000 human genomes, which are complete sets of people's DNA, in the hope that new and more precise diagnostic tests and personalised treatments could be developed in the future.
Over the next two months, more than 1,800 Year 9 pupils from 15 schools across the South West region will have the chance to learn about human genetic coding by building 'pro-bots' out of Lego after deciphering the genetic code puzzle. The resulting 'pro-bots' can be very different from each other depending on the puzzle and change in code that's included in each activity.
The activity is delivered to the schools as a BoxED ('Education in a box') by UWE student ambassadors. The sessions are typically 60 minutes long and the activities have been piloted with UWE's own undergraduate students studying biological sciences, biomedical sciences and adult nursing.
Professor Aniko Varadi, from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences at UWE and Workforce Development Co-Lead for WEGMC said:
"Our faculty developed BoxED to increase outreach and participation in schools based on the research activities of our staff. The 100,000 Genomes BoxED focuses on the impact that even a very small change in our genetic coding can have devastating effects on our health."
Elizabeth Hackling, assistant head teacher at Bridge Learning Campus said:
"This project is giving pupils at Bridge Learning Campus an amazing opportunity to visualise their learning on genomics which is very topical at the moment. The concept of DNA coding is always something science teachers struggle to bring to life - unless we're building jelly baby models of a double helix!
"The activities in the BoxED allow pupils to take a string of letters, turn them into something physical and then realise the outcomes of just one letter being wrong. Being able to relate this to how diseases can affect entire families really helps to engage pupils and deepen their understanding of genomics."
The first 100,000 Genomes BoxED activity is called 'Jessica's Box' after one of the patients that that whole genome sequencing has already helped. A second version, called 'Simon's Box' will be launched later this year and focuses on the concept of genetic inheritance and gene editing as a potential therapeutic tool. The aim is to have these BoxED activities available to schools and community events such as the Festival of Nature and Big Bang @Bristol.
Funding for this initiative has been provided by Health Education England and the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences, UWE to help mainstream genomic medicine and raise awareness of the benefits of looking at genomes for new diagnoses and treatments.
Maxine Foster, Genomics Education programme director said:
"Health Education England is delighted to have funded this innovative activity through our Genomics Education Programme. Reaching out to schools and supporting health and science education is an important aspect of our role."
The UWE student ambassador team will be visiting the following schools: John Cabot Academy, Bridge Learning Campus, Orchard School Bristol, Abbeywood Community School, Fairfield High School, St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, Bristol Metropolitan Academy, Patchway Community College and Downend School.
The team will also be attending Skirting Science in Weston-super-mare which will see Backwell School, Bristol Grammar School, Prior, Worle, Gordano, Chew Valley, Churchill, Sidcott Ravenswood schools and Colston Girls School attend. Another multi-school event will be at Redmaid's School STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) event where over 200 students from schools as far afield as Reading, Cheltenham and Dorset will attend.