Department of Oncology engages budding scientists with school video competition

Encouraging school students and researchers to learn from each other

The competition aimed to inspire students about the Cancer research led at Oxford

The competition aimed to inspire students about the cancer research carried out at Oxford

Public engagement is widely perceived as important within higher education, but it can often be difficult to facilitate a genuine conversation or collaboration. With the aim of engaging secondary students, the Department of Oncology decided to coordinate a video competition. The idea was to open students’ eyes to Oxford’s cancer research by challenging them to create a usable resource communicating what they had learned to a wider audience. The Department welcomed entries that were suitably short, visually appealing and appropriate for online dissemination.

The competition was designed to be a two-way process whereby researchers and students could learn from each other. Firstly, students would gain an insight into the latest cancer research at Oxford and meet University researchers inspiring them with the prospect of a scientific career. However, more than this, they would get the opportunity to influence and contribute to the Department’s work with their creative thinking.

For the Department of Oncology, the competition represented a chance to engage students and their teachers with its work and the careers of its researchers. It was hoped that the videos generated would be of sufficient quality to use on the web to promote the Department’s activities. Furthermore, the Department wanted to establish positive relationships with schools which would (hopefully) lead to regular engagement with each year group of students.

Students impress judges with up-to-the-minute videos

To get things started, the Department attracted a small funding pool which was used to offer prizes in the competition. It was then advertised to schools across the Thames Valley area, asking students to submit a video which could be in any format, but not more than two minutes long. They were instructed that the video should explain both an aspect of the Department’s work and its potential impact to patients. Students were given a six week period to complete the videos, and Dr Martin Christlieb (the Department’s Public Engagement Manager) provided basic guidance on useful resources to complete the task, and background information on the selected areas of science.

The judging panel consisted of two public engagement professionals, a member of the University’s video team and two scientists. The results were annnounced to participants when they visited the Department to tour its research facilities.  The winners received Amazon vouchers in addition to unique trophies made of ‘frozen lightning’ using the Department’s linear accelerator.

The winning entry was produced by the students using a small digital camera and open-source editing software. It uses a highly current format (as previously seen in MinutePhysics) and explains some of the Department’s most significant ongoing research in using viruses to treat cancer. You can view the video, entitled Oxford Cancer Clips – Virus Therapy, on YouTube.

Success as students boldly go beyond the syllabus

The winning video is the most important testimony to the effectiveness of this project since it would not have been created without the enthusiastic engagement of two year 12 students. It also led to nine students and two staff from two schools visiting the department and engaging with the Department’s work. The winning students went far beyond what is required for exams and learned about the potential impacts of science in a way that will stick with them. As Dr Christlieb points out, ‘You can’t teach with such clarity if you don’t understand the material in question.’  Moreover, the Department is now left with a dynamic resource that it can publish online and help to inform the general public.

Advice for working with schools

Dr Christlieb offers the following tips for others looking to engage with schools in a similar way:

Students were given a tour of the lab and workshop at the Department of Oncology.

Students were given a tour of the lab and workshop at the Department of Oncology.

  • Be willing to be surprised and don’t attempt to manage the project at a detailed level. Let the participants exercise their creativity and imaginations within broad constraints set by the material you’re trying to communicate.
  • Set the parameters of the project so that it can be done without too much support from schools. Teachers are often constrained by the time and resources that they can offer to extra-curricular activities. Thus, if students are directed towards easy-to-find tools,  they will be able to operate independently, thereby circumnavigating some the barriers they may have otherwise met.
  • Aim to keep deadlines fairly short so that students can do a good job with their entry and then return to thinking about revision and exams. This stops the project dragging on and becoming a burden. Running the competition within the time-frame of the Michaelmas term can be a good idea.

Further information

  • The IT Learning Programme in IT Services offers courses on media production and editing.
  • Staff in Academic IT Services can help you to create and share learning materials with the school community via the Oxford TES Resources repository. For further information, send an email to

OxTALENT2014_BlackOnWhiteRunner -up, OxTALENT 2014 award for support for outreach. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Martin Christlieb’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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