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Revolution in teaching key subjects gains momentum

Press release issued: 4 December 2009

National and international efforts to increase the supply of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians are receiving a major boost from the University of Bristol.

Fostering expertise in so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is seen by the UK government and other countries as essential to economic well-being and the resolution of some of the world’s great challenges.  

In partnership with e-learning consultancy and product developer Learning Science Ltd, Bristol University has already introduced fresh ways of teaching laboratory skills to A-level and university chemistry students. Now a similar approach is being rolled out for undergraduates in physiology, pharmacology, anatomy and biochemistry.

Bristol University’s initiative exemplifies how universities are using their intellectual capital to create new enterprises and diversify their income sources in increasingly straitened times.   

The developments at Bristol began when the University was designated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as a UK Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) in chemistry. As part of its £5 million award, the University’s School of Chemistry established Bristol ChemLabS – Bristol Chemical Laboratory Sciences.

Central to the ChemLabS vision has been the development, with Learning Science Ltd, of the web-based Dynamic Laboratory Manual – complete with inbuilt, online assessments – to support undergraduates before and during their experiments. Students can access a range of sophisticated simulations and videos to build their confidence and ensure they are well placed to make the best use of their laboratory time.

Now Bristol has introduced LabSkills – a Dynamic Laboratory Manual for A-level chemistry classes. Its use in schools is being promoted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). It is also being made freely available to over 1,500 postgraduate student teachers as part of an initiative called Discover Chemistry – a project managed by the RSC, with financial backing from Pfizer, to support chemistry in the UK.

Furthermore, a specially adapted version of LabSkills is soon to be launched for individual A-level students and marketed via Amazon. A film introducing LabSkills is available on YouTube.

Professor Nick Norman, Chief Executive of Bristol ChemLabS, said: “The response from other universities and from schools to the development of these online tools has exceeded our expectations.

“It is clear there’s a huge demand from university lecturers, A-level teachers and ambitious students at both levels for a readily-accessible, engaging and safe means of helping to develop essential laboratory skills.”

Bristol is also home to AIMS – Applied and Integrated Medical Sciences. This is the University’s other, £5 million, HEFCE-funded CETL. AIMS has already introduced a web-based virtual microscope to support learning and teaching in histology, the principle of which could be applied across other laboratory-based subjects.

AIMS is now creating other web-based tools, similar to those embedded in the ChemLabS DLM, for developing undergraduate skills in physiology, pharmacology and anatomy, as well as CD-ROMs to support GCSE-level dissection classes.

The AIMS developments follow on from work undertaken by Bristol’s biochemists. The JISC-funded eBioLabs project has created an online version of an undergraduate bioscience laboratory that allows students to practice skills before they perform the experiment for real. Versions for A-level students are set to follow. A guided tour of eBioLabs is available on YouTube.

The extension into the life sciences of these innovative approaches to the development of laboratory-based skills is highly topical given the strategic importance attached by the recently established government Office for Life Sciences to fostering practical skills among UK life-science graduates. 

Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor at Bristol, said: “The potential market for these products worldwide is enormous. Any financial return on the University’s investment of time and talent would be more than welcome.

“More importantly, we are helping schools, colleges and universities nurture skills on which the UK and the wider world will increasingly depend.”

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