Written by Erin Hardee, Schools Outreach Organiser, School of Life Sciences
Since 2017 the School of Life Sciences has run a work experience week for S5-6 pupils dedicated to sharing insights into life sciences careers in research. It has been a popular offering, with students from Dundee and beyond signing up for a full week’s worth of intensive activities, including workshops, tours, admissions sessions and a variety of hands-on practical lab experience.
This year we knew we would have to adjust our week, as the restrictions in response to COVID-19 meant that we were not able to welcome pupils onto campus. We decided to shift to an entirely online work experience week as many other institutions across the country were doing. This had both challenges and benefits, which I will outline below.
The format of the week
Adapting the in-person work experience to a virtual environment meant that some of the sessions we previously offered were no longer suitable. While it was a shame to lose out on the hands-on lab placements we were keen to use the new format to offer opportunities that would benefit the pupils in other ways.
Some sessions we were able to keep roughly the same. Our ‘careers speed dating’ session, usually held as a rotating set of chats between pupils and postgraduate students and researchers, became a series of short videos from SLS members about their career journeys and day-to-day work. We then supplemented this with a series of Q&A sessions during the rest of the week where pupils could submit questions during live chats with researchers from Plant Sciences, the School of Medicine, SLS and the Darcy Thompson Unit.
We have historically offered different presentations and workshops during the WEW; unsurprisingly these adapted relatively easily to the online format. This year we held workshops on science in the media, GM crops, animals in research and writing personal statements. These each consisted of interactive PowerPoint presentations (using Mentimeter) and a linked task, which students could complete either individually or in groups.
We also added some new content to take advantage of the virtual format, including introducing pupils to programmes like BioRender, which are used by researchers to visualise scientific topics and create graphics and posters.
All content was uploaded to dedicated pages on the Life Sciences website, and shared with participants. ‘Live’ sessions like workshops and Q&As were run through Blackboard Collaborate, but presentation slides and notes were available for download from the website for anyone who wanted to review the content, or who wasn’t able to attend the live sessions.
The main challenge to shifting to an entirely online format was whether this would be engaging and accessible enough to keep the pupils’ interest throughout the week. It’s relatively easy to judge how engaged pupils are in person and adjust the activities to suit; online it can be difficult to do so. We felt it would be very easy to lose pupils throughout the week through disinterest – how could we incentivise the pupils to stay engaged with us throughout the week?
The amount of work needed to produce a high-quality online experience should not be underestimated. It’s not as simple as just putting a PowerPoint online. You need to think about how to work with the format, how to make it engaging and interactive across a digital divide, and ensure that it is accessible to everyone.
Holding the Work Experience Week online meant that we were able to open applications to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Because we set it up so that many of the tasks could be completed independently and asynchronously, it was accessible to pupils who had jobs and other commitments during the week. We were also able to welcome a larger cohort than normal, which meant more pupils benefited from the experience.
Our first virtual Work Experience Week was a huge learning experience, and overall a very positive experience for all that took part. Here are a handful of lessons learned:
- Secondary pupils are on the whole much more tech-savvy than we are! They found it relatively easy to stay engaged throughout the week and did not struggle with the various technological requirements (accessing websites, using chat rooms, etc.)
- We had about 35 pupils throughout the week, with 30 or so attending ‘live’ sessions every day. This was a good number and allowed me as the facilitator (to form a relationship with them. I wouldn’t recommend going above 40 participants per facilitator; if you have a larger group ensure you have a dedicated person for every 20-30 pupils so they don’t lose that personal connection.
- Blackboard Collaborate is a useful platform. We used it a bit like a virtual ‘common room’ – all of the Q&A sessions and workshops were facilitated through it, but it was also live the entire day so that pupils could come in and ask questions, check links, etc. It is superior to a lot of other platforms because you only need to click on a link to access – no registration or additional software needed.
- Allowing pupils the choice to stay and complete tasks in groups or to do them individually meant that no one was forced into a scenario they were uncomfortable with. About half regularly completed tasks on their own, while the other half were happy to mix in groups throughout the week and turn in group projects.
- Beginning the week with video interviews and prompting students to come up with questions after watching them meant that we had a ready-made ‘question bank’ for Q&As later in the week. We sent these questions to all the researchers and postgrads and asked them to highlight the ones they’d be comfortable answering, so that we could personalise each session and ensure it flowed well. This seemed very popular with both the researchers and the pupils – it ensured the researchers were prepped ahead of time with the questions that they’d be asked, and the facilitator could ensure all the questions were addressed over the course of the week.
- As an incentive to keep pupils engaged, certain tasks were marked as mandatory. Any pupil that completed all of these tasks would receive a certificate of completion and are eligible for both references on CVs and applications and a feedback session for any personal statements they write. Pupils were very keen for these rewards, so the retention throughout the week was very high.
All in all, the virtual work experience week was a success, with great feedback from the pupils and the researchers who took part. I’m hopeful that now that much of the content has been created we will be able to offer the week more often and reach even more pupils throughout the year.