Centre of the Cell

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Centre of the Cell - a local project with global reach. Centre of the Cell is the first science education centre in the world to be located within biomedical research laboratories. The project was created by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and its medical school, Barts and The London, to inspire curiosity and learning and to connect science to everyday life. Embedding a science centre for the public at the heart of a research building is enabling us to generate an ethos of enthusiastic, targeted two-way communication that permeates throughout the medical school and university. Centre of the Cell is deeply rooted within its diverse local communities and also acts as catalyst to stimulate further public engagement and outreach projects across the university.

Centre of the Cell is a £4 million biomedical science centre; educational website and outreach project aimed at children and young people aged 9 to 19, families and youth and community groups. The Centre of the Cell 'Pod' (resembling a 16 cell human embryo) is dramatically suspended above the laboratories and provides young people with a unique interactive insight into what scientists do and how their work influences real life. Centre of the Cell's Director, Professor Fran Balkwill OBE FMedSci, is a leading cancer researcher and science communication expert. The project has secured funding from a number of sources including trusts and foundations; companies and the European Commission. Centre of the Cell’s strategic aim to achieve long-term sustainability is to diversify its income streams by commercialising its unique and innovative resources. Centre of the Cell’s public engagement work is pioneering and initial research has revealed business opportunities and potential markets. The current portfolio of business opportunities includes licensing Centre of the Cell’s interactive games, workshops and live science shows; developing stand-alone applications eg smart phone & iPad apps; publishing books and games; larger scale retail and securing commissioning to develop digital interactives, workshops and shows and franchising Centre of the Cell nationally and globally.

Aims

Centre of the Cell aims to:

  • Inspire the next generation of scientists and healthcare professionals
  • Raise career aspirations and improve educational attainment
  • Widen participation in Higher Education
  • Improve skills and employability
  • Support family and community learning and interaction
  • Improve health and wellbeing
  • Contribute to the regeneration of East London
  • Create a centre of excellence for local, national and international public engagement with science

The research and development programme started in 2004 and more than 120 QMUL scientists and clinicians have contributed to Centre of the Cell’s ground-breaking public engagement resources and activities. Since launch in March 2007 there have been 640,000 unique visits to Centre of the Cell’s website and 18.7 million hits from 162 countries. More than 1,000 young people visit the Centre each month, and since opening in September 2009 Centre of the Cell has run more than 1,500 interactive ‘Pod’ shows, live science shows and workshops. To date, more than 43,000 children, young people and families have participated in Centre of the Cell’s innovative public engagement and outreach programmes. Centre of the Cell staff facilitate sessions in the 'Pod', supported by volunteer scientists and undergraduate and postgraduate students. Centre of the Cell’s content is linked to Key Stages 2, 3 and 4 of the Science National Curriculum and is cross-linked to the English, Maths, Art, and Citizenship curricula. Activities are supported by summer schools, revision classes, mentoring, online resources, ‘Science Boxes’, workshops in schools, The Big Question lectures, internships and work placements. During the school holidays Centre of the Cell runs sessions for families and youth and community groups aimed at our local communities.

Public Engagement

Inside the ‘Pod’, Centre of the Cell's innovative approach to public engagement uses state-of-art interactive digital games and virtual experiments where visitors carry out scientific tasks. Participants grow virtual cells to enable experiments in HIV research; learn about stem cells for research into burns treatments; explore real body parts and diagnose cancerous tissues using microscopes. Centre of the Cell has created a learning experience that excites and inspires participants. Its combination of digital technologies and real-world science creates a science education experience not available in the classroom or anywhere else in the world. Centre of the Cell’s innovative workshops are developed and tested with young people and teachers and are designed to enhance and enrich the curriculum. They cover topics that teachers find challenging to teach and are highly interactive, engaging and fun.

Evaluation

Centre of the Cell runs a highly successful Youth Membership scheme aimed at young people aged 14 to 18 living in deprived areas of East London. Centre of the Cell currently has 154 Youth Members. The membership benefits include access to mentoring and revision sessions, careers workshops, volunteering opportunities, work placements and internships. Volunteers help to run Family Science Days; take part in sessions in the Centre of the Cell ‘Pod’ and act as ‘community champions’ at local events and festivals. Youth Members are invited to join the Youth Forum who test new resources and interactives; decide the questions for the Big Question Lecture Series and help shape the future of Centre of the Cell’s development. The response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive as demonstrated by internal and external evaluations. Centre of the Cell’s evaluation strategy includes ongoing quantitative and qualitative assessments. Centre of the Cell assess whether the key goal of inspiring and motivating the target audiences has been achieved; whether the targeted number of beneficiaries has been reached; whether the learning outcomes have been achieved and whether visitors know more about university and are more interested in science after taking part in sessions at the Centre. The overall response is positive, especially in terms of achieving learning outcomes and attitudes towards science and careers in science. Centre of the Cell commissioned an independent external evaluation revealing that the project is valued for learning with longevity; learning through fun; being well organised; its egalitarian approach and science made relevant. A long-term research programme is also being developed that aims to assess impact in terms of educational attainment; the effect on post-16 educational choices; widening participation in higher education; raising career aspirations and improving health outcomes.

The cohort of school students from disadvantaged backgrounds enrolled on Centre of the Cell's revision and mentoring programme for the last two years are a shining example of the strengths of the project. Students gained places to read medicine at Cambridge University (A levels achieved: 3 A* and 1 A); biomedical science at King's College London; medical engineering at Queen Mary University of London and radiography at City University. The project is improving the lives of the young people it engages with by improving their educational opportunities; raising career aspirations and developing key skills and widening participation in higher education for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

'‘Without Centre of the Cell I would not be in the position I am in now and I am whole-heartedly grateful for their support. Centre of the Cell has improved my confidence, communication skills, responsibility and time management skills. I firmly believe that Centre of the Cell are fully deserving of support so they can inspire young minds and help students from deprived backgrounds aspire higher and achieve their goals.’'

Future Plans

Centre of the Cell's current and future plans include:

  • The creation of Neuron 'Pod' - a £2.3 million public engagement learning facility close to the current Centre of the Cell 'Pod'. To date, £1.4 million has been raised including a recent major capital grant from the Wellcome Trust
  • New public health-focused workshops including 'Healthy Hearts' aimed at children, young people and families
  • Expansion of hands-on workshops and experiments including the new 'Trauma Show ' and 'Hands on DNA'

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