Q&A with Fran Gale, Education Development Lead

Date: 20 March 2019

Fran Gale gives us an insight into her work, the many projects she's involved in, and the aim of the schools programme.

Fran is the Education Development Lead within Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement. We asked her to give us an insight into her job working with teachers, school students, Campus researchers and more on a range of projects and activities aimed at making the science on Campus as accessible to as many people as possible.

Q1: Please tell us a bit about your background

I have always been passionate about talking to people about science and the natural world. I started my career in science education and engagement as the Education Officer at Colchester Zoo after having studied Biological Sciences at Exeter University. In this role, I was responsible for the education programme at the zoo and managed a team of educators and presenters who ran school workshops and designed interpretation and presentations to engage visitors with conservation and biodiversity. After 8 years at the Zoo, I studied part time for a Masters in Science Communication at the University of West England and, in 2008, started work as the Education Officer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, running the education programme. I have been here ever since!

Fran showing a school group around the Curious Nature exhibition
Fran showing a school group around the Curious Nature exhibition
Q2: Please give us an overview of your job and the different groups you work with.

My job is quite varied and I work with a wide range of people on and off the Wellcome Genome Campus, both educators and scientists.

One of the biggest parts of my job is hosting school visits on Campus, of which we welcome 35 – 40 school groups – over 1,000 students – a year, mostly from secondary schools. We work hard to make Campus science accessible to all schools, and are committed to engaging with schools in area of high deprivation and low social mobility. We provide incentives such a travel bursary to remove the barrier of travel costs so students can come to the Campus and see the science first hand, but we also take the science to these schools through visits from Campus staff.

Campus staff play a very important role in school visits: they provide role models for the students and give insight into STEM careers. As well as going off-site, staff contribute greatly to Campus visits, and we are getting more and more creative in how we involve them! Staff (mostly, but not exclusively, scientists) can contribute as activity guides or host behind-the-scenes tours. They give talks and take part in scientist speed dating (not as inappropriate as it may sound!) where students can ask them anything they like!

Wellcome Genome Campus researcher talking to school children
Wellcome Genome Campus researcher talking to school children

With colleagues from the Public Engagement team, I also develop educational resources such as activities, animations, and videos to help support teachers in discussing and teaching genomics in the classroom. These are freely available on our yourgenome.org website. Where possible we also work with collaborators to help increase the reach of our work. Later this year we will launch a series of genomics-themed resources with the British Science Association which can be used by primary school students to gain a CREST Super Star award.

Teacher training is also an important part of my role. The UK Science curriculum has seen many changes over recent years, including the introduction of genomic content and bioinformatics. For some teachers this can be daunting so we offer sessions both on and off Campus where teachers can meet our scientists, hear first-hand about the latest technologies and applications, and learn how to use our resources. Teacher training has taken me all around the UK but also all the way to Iceland, which was pretty cool. No pun intended!

I also work with curriculum developers and textbook writers to ensure that the latest genomics technology is represented correctly in education resources. Most recently, I have worked with a group of Campus scientists to put together a book on genomics for 16 year-olds that will be published later this year. I’m really looking forward to that!

Q3: Can you give us an example of what an average day in the office looks like for you?

I know it can sound a bit clichéd but no day is the same, which is why I like my job. Tomorrow my day may involve meeting with Campus scientists to help them develop activities for schools or an outreach visit, developing educational content myself, dealing with enquiries from schools, or planning future education events and projects within the Public Engagement team. If it is a school visit day, I will be seen leading the groups across the Campus to our two main engagement spaces: the Discovery Zone and Open Lab.

Q4: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Fitting everything in! We are a busy team. There are always new projects to work on, or collaborations to be involved with, and I am one of those people that just can’t say no!

Fran Gale talking about bioinformatics
Fran Gale talking about bioinformatics
Q5: Which projects have you been working on recently, and which has been your highlight?

I have worked on some great projects over the last few years, and there are some really exciting ones coming up too. One of the recent highlights has been working with scientists on Genome Decoders. This is the Campus’s biggest education initiative to date and has been developed and driven by scientists at both the Sanger Institute and EMBL-EBI. Working with the Institute for Research in Schools to develop a participatory research project, school students aged 14-18 have been annotating the genes of the human whipworm (Trichuris trichuria) genome. Over 1,800 students across the UK have registered to be part of the project to date.

I have also enjoyed developing our visits programme with the team, making it more accessible for primary school students. We recently hosted several visits to Campus for year 6 students, where they learnt about the Sanger Institute’s 25 Genomes project, extracted DNA from Strawberries, met scientists from the Campus and visited the Curious Nature exhibition. It was great fun and some of the scientists were very creative in talking about their work, using an organ apron and cuddly pathogens!

I am also very excited about a project that has recently started: Working with the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team here we are supporting seven local primary schools to participate in the Primary Science Quality Mark. Part of this year-long scheme will be to build a strong relationship between the Campus and the schools, and for scientists to help to raise the students’ Science Capital, particularly by providing science role models for the students.

Q6: What is the overall aim of the schools programme, and how do you measure success?

The overall aim of the education programme is to inspire, empower, and engage young people of all ages and backgrounds with genomic science and its applications. We work with partners to support schools and educators with the teaching of genomics and biodata through the provision of high-quality resources and inclusive experiences.

We measure success in a number of different ways, for example monitoring the number of downloads of our educational resources and the number of students and teachers we are reaching through on- site and off-site activities. We also evaluate how we engage with schools to get a better understanding of how these experiences are influencing students’ aspirations and attitudes to science. We regularly gather data from the students and teachers who have taken part in our activities to get a measure on how the experience has had an impact, and how we can support their learning journey after the event.

When working with schools you have to build relationships and sustain them. We see success as maintaining and developing those relationships, so that all students moving up through the school have the opportunity to engage regularly with the Campus and its staff. Not every student we speak to is going to think ‘I am going to be a scientist!’; but if meeting our scientists inspires a few students who would never have thought of studying science beyond school to apply for University or an Apprenticeship, we are having an impact. On a more personal level, getting 9 year-olds to extract DNA from a strawberry may not be cutting-edge science, but for those students that could be the coolest thing they have done all year. If they are still enthusiastically talking about it weeks later, that in my eyes is also a success!

Thank you very much, Fran, for taking the time of sharing your work with us.

To contact Fran Gale or her colleague Mike Norman, please email education@wgc.org.uk

Find out more about the Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement team do to support educators: www.wgc.org.uk/education