Using an online medical resource to inspire science, art and creativity in schools

Historical slides provide an opportunity for outreach

Sir Charles Sherrington

Sir Charles Sherrington

Professor Zoltán Molnár is a specialist in developmental neuroscience in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG). When he became the latest custodian of a box of teaching slides from the physiologist and Nobel laureate Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, he teamed up with learning technologist Dr Damion Young on a major public engagement project funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project made the slides of Sherrington, as well as those of several other prominent scientists from Oxford and elsewhere, accessible to everyone through an online resource called CSlide. CSlide allows scientists, historians and the public to contribute to a growing body of historical slides, documents and other artefacts, and to chart the relationships between them.

As part of this project Dr Lizzie Burns was asked to develop online teaching resources, based on the work of Sherrington, relevant to the National Curriculum in primary and secondary schools. The project was not without its challenges: some of Sherrington’s research involved animal testing, a controversial subject matter in today’s world. However, Dr Burns felt that the remarkable and wide-ranging contributions made by Sherrington to science, philosophy and literature deserved better dissemination and recognition.

Bringing art and science together for schoolchildren

Keen to find an uplifting angle on Sherrington, Dr Burns chose to develop workshops for primary and secondary schools based on his 1940 book Man on his Nature. In this work, Sherrington poetically describes the rich beauty of life from the microscopic level and explores matters of consciousness, the interdependence of life and altruism. During the workshops, Dr Burns shared a selection of quotes from the work to encourage pupils to ask questions, challenge their own thinking and express their ideas about the body and brain through poetry and painting: for example, ‘[The brain is] an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of sub-patterns.’

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School pupils proudly display their creations made in the workshops

Approximately 200 students took part in workshops in schools around Oxford. Much to everyone’s delight, the quality of the resulting artwork was high, which suggested a good level of engagement among pupils. The science department at one school even displayed a framed poster combining students’ artwork with one of Sherrington’s quotes.

To give a sense of legacy to this work the pupils’ creations, archival images, Sherrington’s writing, teaching slides and notes have been added to a lasting record of the project on the History of Medical Sciences website. Additionally, to extend the reach of the learning resources even further and inspire other practitioners, Dr Burns uploaded the teaching presentations to the TES Resources repository, an extensive online collection of educational resources for schools. The materials have since been viewed over 570 times.

Dr Burns also involved students and researchers in the workshops, enabling them to develop their public engagement skills through interacting with the school pupils.

The project encourages fresh thinking and ideas

Overall, the project, through workshops and shared learning materials, has helped to make CSlide a usable web resource to primary and secondary schools. Dr Burns explains that ‘the PowerPoints encourage students to use their imagination, ask questions, to think philosophically and cross-disciplinary – [and move beyond] rote learning’. The feedback and ideas pupils offered after the sessions included:
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In addition, an eight-year-old girl posed this brain-teaser: ‘How come when the brain is littler it seems like it has more imagination?’

In order to share the project and celebrate the creative spirit it inspired, DPAG is exploring options to display pupils’ responses to CSlide in the communal areas of its Sherrington Building.

Top tips

Dr Burns offers the following advice for others looking to run their own creative outreach project with schools:

  • Imagination is key. Keep ideas simple, but allow participants the opportunity to develop their own ideas rather than expecting a certain outcome.
  • Share your digital resources through established channels (e.g. TES Resources) that already have an active readership who are ready to view and exchange materials.

 Further information

  • Staff in Academic IT Services can help you to prepare and contribute educational materials to the TES Resources repository. For further information, send an email to academicit@it.ox.ac.uk.

OxTALENT 2015 LogoWinner, OxTALENT 2015 award for support for outreach and engagement. Text and images in this case study have been adapted from Dr Lizzie Burn’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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