This guest post is written by Dr. Andreas Prokop from the University of Manchester. He is passionately engaged in Drosophila-related outreach activities and science communication and writes here about the importance of using fruit flies in the classroom and calls on other fruit fly researchers to help develop strategies to achieve this goal.
Drosophila clearly is the animal in which biology is conceptually best understood. But how well do we sell this fact to the public and in schools? Certainly, Drosophila is far more than an animal substitute for Mendel’s peas, and the recent post by Bethany gives wonderful examples of what can be done with flies as modern and effective teaching tools in class rooms. The enormous power of bringing Drosophila into schools becomes unmistakably clear when talking to members of the public: those who experienced flies in schools, even decades ago, tend to respond with noticeably greater curiosity and interest to fly-related topics than those without such memories. Importantly, there are many biology specifications of the curriculum that can be explained extremely well using flies – and this can usually be spiced up with exciting, simple and cheap experiments that are likely to stick in pupils’ minds for the future. However, in this scenario, flies should not necessarily dominate but rather be used as teaching tools wherever they can help teachers to achieve a lesson’s learning objectives. Learning modern biology through flies, shoulder-to-shoulder with related human examples, clearly conveys the value of simple invertebrate model organisms without any further need to emphasise and explain. If we can establish flies in this way as modern teaching tools in schools, this will in the long term be more powerful than labour-intense Drosophila days at schools organised by scientists, and will have a chance to be applied on a far larger scale.
In Manchester, we are experimenting with the above ideas very successfully. However, it has become clear that a key challenge is the creation of resources for teachers. Such resources will only work if they are concise, explained in simple terms and conceptually mature, so that they meet the needs of busy teachers in each and every aspect and help them gain quick understanding which they can then pass on to their students. To acquire the necessary expertise for this task, we have started to place PhD students for several weeks as active teacher assistants in schools, which allows them to experience school realities first, before generating adequate and tailor made resources. However, this is only one strategy and more effort is needed. It would therefore be great if other members of the fly community contributed, thus generating a wider choice of materials to meet the individual needs and personal tastes of a greater range of teachers. If you are interested in this kind of activity and are attending the American Drosophila Research Conference in 2015 in Chicago, please come to the Drosophila science communication workshop to discuss possible strategies.
Clearly, long-term strategies are needed if we want to promote the wider understanding of invertebrate model organisms, thus also addressing the current downturn in Drosophila funding recently highlighted by Hugo and his colleagues. Tragically, this decline occurs in times where Drosophila research is perhaps more urgently needed than ever, when considering that Human Genetics and “omics” approaches bring up more questions than could possibly be answered without the fly. Starting in schools addresses this problem at its roots and lays important foundations for the future. But there is also personal benefit from these activities: engaging with the public in any way (and this clearly includes engagement at schools!) helps to develop the right arguments that work with members of the public – hence, naturally, also with members on grant panels! In my experience, it forces one to think about the essentials of one’s science leading to new ideas and thoughts, thus becoming a win-win activity that pays off in two directions.
Why Drosophila can be used to explain fundamental and even human biology or biology of disease: Humans share a surprising amount in common with Drosophila. In particular, the genes that tell cells how to divide, develop, and function and what the basic body plan should look like are often the same as in humans. This new understanding yielded a wealth of exciting discoveries – even about the brain and the processes of learning and memory – and about mechanisms of disease (taken from the short educational film “Small fly – BIG impact“)