Authentic Biology at Peter Symonds College

The approach to Authentic Biology here at Peter Symonds college is slightly different to the other schools. Some of these are purely due to logistics - we are a sixth form college, not a school, so our students are here for a fairly short time, typically less than 2 years, so long term involvement in research is not possible. We are also very large, over 4000 full-time students at present, over a quarter of them studying AS or A level Biology, this means involving all or most of our students in research is also impossible!

However, we have developed a model which we think works for us. The size of the college creates many economies of scale, one of which is the provision of a huge range of extra-curricular activities (D of E, sports, knitting, you name it) one of which is Biology Research Club, a one term activity, run by Dr Barrie Roberts, in which year 12 students get to grips with research methods, basic lab equipment and the opportunity to use model organisms such as Caenorhabditis elegans (tiny nematode worms), Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly), Arabidopsis (a fast-growing plant) and Homo sapiens (your fellow students). Techniques, equipment and the organisms themselves have been provided by our partner, the University of Southampton.

Some students take to this sort of thing like a duck to water, others don't - this is our first 'filter' for finding the best 'Authentic Biologists'

Our next step is to ask all those students who have enrolled in Biology Research club if they would like to pursue their own individual research project in June/July, the period after exams when half our rooms are empty and we can have a dedicated research lab - all day, every day. Those that take this up need to order equipment, materials etc from us so they can hit the ground running in June.

Another reason for our approach to Authentic Biology is that students have the option to link it to the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) - a stand alone, post-16 qualification in which students carry out a research project - and a perfect fit for Authentic Biology. For anyone who doesn't know, EPQ numbers have been expanding over the past few years, more A level students do a level 3 EPQ than do A level Physics nationally, and over 400 do it here at Peter Symonds every year. Sadly, there is a paucity of PRACTICAL science EPQ projects and we are trying to address that.

Some students who do practical research in the summer turn it into an EPQ, some don't or do an EPQ on a totally unrelated topic. We like the freedom and flexibility of this arrangement. We ask them all to go down to Southampton in September to make a short presentation of their work to the academics at the University, who give feedback, ask questions and so on. This is good practice for the Authentic Biology symposium in November and for the EPQ presentation some of them will do later.

The symposium and EPQ deadline essentially round out the year. I am currently marking 3 practical EPQs: one on the effect of the smart drug modafinil on the fertility of C elegans, another on the effect of the anti-epileptic drug phenytoin on the locomotor activity of D melanogaster and a third on the effect of changing light intensity on balance (in people).

In broad terms, we don't have a single over-arching research project that we pursue, we feel that this narrows students down, when their educational experience is already heavily prescribed. To offer them the opportunity to do research, but only on the project WE have defined, defeats the object. We want them to experience the joys AND the responsibility of running their own project and pursuing their own interests. Students get a taste of what research is really about - the excitement and the disasters, before they go on to decide their path in life.


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