Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The UTC Skills Passport: Capturing Lab Skills

During the first year of the UTC, having welcomed a cohort of new students between the ages of 14 and 16, I wanted to establish first hand just what they were capable of in a laboratory. After all, I had left school over 30 years earlier and my lab class experience, like that of most University academics, has been in delivering undergraduate practicals to new first years and second years in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for over 20 years (on and off). The Innovation Labs at the UTC are as good as it gets  (and generally better) in comparison with those UK University labs I have experienced, and they meet Industry standards at a level just below GMP (as you can see and from the UTC web site). The rationale behind the UTC movement in general, but in particular at Liverpool, includes the establishment of a programme of lab work that prepares students for the world of Science. The National Curriculum provides students with a knowledge base, whether it is in Maths, Physics, Chemistry or Biology, that is then examined first by GCSE and then A levels. This is clearly an important part of their journey into the world of Universities and employment, but the Liverpool Life Sciences UTC has a wider remit. We are here to produce the Scientists of the future and this, in my view, requires the provision of a set of experiences that are not commonly provided by conventional schools. Moreover, as the current debate over the inclusion of practical science in the National curriculum rages, we are very fortunate at the UTC, to be in the vanguard of those educational institutions where laboratory classes are integrated into our timetable and are additional to the Curriculum classes.

Having organised the equipment and lab space, I wanted to see how the students and staff would respond to an open ended lab challenge: validating the Beer Lambert Law. After all, relationship between the colour of a liquid (or some other measurable property such as fluorescence or radioactivity) and the molar concentration of the chromaphore form the basis of all diagnostic tests. From my own perspective, the class experience would allow me to see how the students responded to the challenge. To give you more of an idea of the lab, there are around 100 students (either 14 year olds, Y10s, or 16 year olds, Y12s). They are allocated a bench between 3/4 and they have access to the necessary reagents (in this case a copper sulphate solution or a microbiological dye such as crystal violet at a known concentration). The students are asked to use pipettmen (colloquially we call them Gilsons (old habits!, but they are actually Finnpipettes from Thermo Fisher), tips ad any appropriate vessels they might need from the lab, to validate the relationship using a spectrophotometer. They are given no detailed instructions, but are asked to devise an experiment (essentially a standard curve) based on the relationship, which is on a screen in front of the class. They are given half a day to carry out the task and teachers and two of my PhD students were on hand to advise.

The outcome of this was extremely positive. The students naturally "bounced off the walls" a little at first, but a group momentum soon took over, and by the end of the day, all students had performed the task (with a range of levels of achievement, as expected). I wont go into details, but I was able to satisfy myself that both Y10 and Y12 students could work in small groups, they could plan an experiment and they could make measurements in an appropriate manner without being overwhelmed by the challenge. Importantly, their first exposure to physical chemistry equations of this kind and plotting data appeared not to be a major barrier (which I had thought would be the case). With this experience in hand, I decided that I could be more ambitious  (especially at the Y12 level) in my planning and classes could be more challenging than I had originally anticipated. 

Discussions with University academics, employers and parents as well as the students, of course have led to one very simple conclusion: the skills we teach in the Innovation labs must prepare students for life. For example, Life Scientists in the Pharmaceutical Industry are just as likely to need to prepare samples for mass spectrometry or X-ray crystallography as they are for enzymatic analysis or an ELISA assay. For this they will use Gilsons, microcentrifuge tubes (Eppendorfs), bench top centrifuges and sterile/filtered and high quality reagents. And they may often have to assemble reactions in a total volume of 10 microlitres (for the uninitiated, this is about the volume of a pin head). It is not unusual for new Molecular Biologists to question whether there is anything in the tube (myself included years ago!). For all of these manipulations, the operator must take great care, must learn how to calibrate their instruments and must understand how to obtain accurate results in a reproducible manner. 

There are some significant differences in the approach employed in the Innovation Lab programme, which I have given the acronym REAL: for Research Enhanced, Active Learning (the addition of Active was kindly suggested by my good friend Dr. Rob Rule). In short, students learn by planning and conducting every experiment as a research project in which they are responsible for all stages of the work. I have provided students with a sample planning template (the work flow diagram Template in the sidebar) and a series of skills sessions in which they are introduced to methods, standard and advanced items of equipment, safety aspects, sample storage advice, Bioinformatics and literature/Internet searching and quantitative data analysis methods. The skills training is embedded in the lab sessions (although a period of induction for new students forms part of the start of each academic year), but it also forms the core of our "Skills Passport", which provides the student with a portfolio of skills that s/he can take away from the UTC upon "Graduation". The Skills Passport is the culmination of the experiences in the first year at the UTC and follows consultation with a range of Academic and Commercial Scientists and Science managers. I shall explain it in a little more detail below.

The use of micro-methods is at the heart of contemporary laboratory science, but it is not the only difference between school science and that practised in University research labs and Industry (which I will refer to as real world science for simplicity). Contemporary separation sciences that have (mostly) replaced crystallization and filtration including liquid chromatography (simple and high performance), electrophoresis on thin gels and the use of recombinant DNA technology to clone genes and obtain customised fermentation products for research or for Biotechnological and Biomedical applications. Then there are some more generic skills: the use of ICT, the ability to communicate through presentations and reports and a range of extraction procedures, microscopic methods, many of which have become standard practice in the real world, but for many reasons are not taught or demonstrated in schools. 

In consultation with senior experimental and theoretical scientists around the world, including a number of Nobel Laureates, Fellows of the Royal Society, Senior Team Leaders in Industry and authors of high profile Science Texts, I have distilled down the key skills that UTC students will take with them, following a programme of assessments over 2-4 years. These are summarised in a document that also gives a summary of some of the concerns expressed by employers and academics, it is in the sidebar under Skills Passport Background. I would welcome any feedback. But I would like to thank the following for their (often lengthy and always constructive suggestions, ideas and comments. Without their input the Liverpool Life-sciences UTC Skills Passport would have been much less comprehensive. In addition to this independent group, I am also grateful for all of the suggestions from our sponsors and partners, who provide an invaluable and constant stream of suggestions and advice.

The details of our REAL programme and project plans for the coming year will feature in two subsequent Blogs

The core skills are summarised (and taken from the linked document) below:

Foundation Skills

  • Keeping a legible lab notebook
  • Planning experimental work
  • Constructing and testing a hypothesis
  • Understanding precision, accuracy and the need to repeat experiments
  • Behaving appropriately, observing health and safety rules and regulations
  • Understanding the key concepts in chemistry: gravimetrics, volumetrics, molarity and pH
  • Computer literacy
  • Oral, visual and written communication

Core Lab Skills 
  • Using and maintaining a "Gilson" (or equivalent)
  • Safe use of a centrifuge
  • Sterile technique: microbes and cultured cells
  • Understanding the storage requirements for experimental samples
  • Visible and UV spectroscopy Using and calibrating a pH meter
  • Using and respecting the cleanliness of a balance (top pan and fine balances)

Advanced Laboratory skills
  • Preparation of nucleic acids (genomic DNA, plasmids and RNA)
  • Microbial cell disruption for protein preparation
  • Nucleic acid and protein gel electrophoresis
  • Chromatography (ion exchange, affinity, gel filtration and HPLC
  • Basic plasmid transformation and mini-prep methodology
  • Designing PCR primers and carrying out PCR
  • Knowledge of a method of molecular cloning and restriction analysis
  • Use of a light microscope and fluorescence microscopy

Professional Awareness
  • Appropriate and traceable storage of reagents and materials
  • Standard COSSH regulations
  • General Laboratory safety
  • Safe use and disposal of hazardous materials including radioisotopes
  • General laboratory management and design

Thanks to those who are not affiliated to our partners, they are (in no particular order) and apologies for any omissions, there were  some inevitable compromises!

Professor Sir Richard Roberts FRS and Nobel Laureate (USA)
Professor Steve Yeaman (Newcastle)
Dr. Clive Price (Lancaster)
Professor Emeritus Nick Price (Glasgow)
Professor Phil Ingham (Singapore)
Professor David Coates (Dundee)
Dr. Nick Brewer (Dundee)
Professor Andy Sharrocks (Manchester)
Dr. Paul Shore (Manchester)
Dr. Iain Mattaj (EMBL)
Dr. Doug Gjerde (Phynexus, USA)
Professor Chris Smith (Cambridge)
Professor Kathryn Lilley (Cambridge)
Professor Tony Wilkinson (York)
Dr. Mark Dickman (Sheffield)
Dr. Mark Paine (Liverpool, LSTM)
Professor Neil Hunter FRS (Sheffield)
Professor Jeff Green (Sheffield)
Professor Emeritus John Bryant (Exeter)
Professor Malcolm Press (Birmingham)
Professor Peter Nixon (London, Imperial College)
Professor Simon Oldfield (Leicester, DMU)
Dr. Gareth Lycett (Liverpool, LSTM)
Dr. Antal Kiss (Hungary)
Professor Chris Barratt (Dundee)
Professor Emeritus David Lloyd (Cardiff)
Professor Alister Craig (Liverpool LSTM)
Professor Richard Pleass (Liverpool LSTM)
Dr. Paul Andrews (Stem Cell Solutions, Dundee)
Dr. Simon Baker (Bioline/Meridian)
Dr. Mark Powell (MP Scientific)
Dr. David Dryden (Edinburgh)

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