An increasing need for science communication and outreach
What can be done to address these issues?
- multi-faceted, targeting audiences at all levels;
- follow long-term strategic plans, and;
- be well coordinated amongst drosophilists.
Initiatives that address the first two aspects are starting to spread within the Drosophila community:
- More than a decade ago Christian Klämbt started the visionary “FlyMove” project, a website dedicated to illustrating and explaining Drosophila developmental biology in simple terms, aimed at university students and teachers.
- Increasing numbers of school or university lessons are being published, as well as ideas for science fair displays [LINK].
- Bethany Christmann‘s blog “Fly on the wall” is an outstanding initiative to explain in lay terms trends in Drosophila.
Originating from her participation in a 2011 workshop on Drosophila Neurogenetics (organised by Lucia Prieto-Godino and Sadiq Yusuf in Uganda), Isabel Palacios runs an increasingly successful series of Drosophila workshops in Africa. Together, with the development of the TReND in Africa organization which developed from the same workshop [LINK1; LINK2; LINK3], these initiatives are successfully seeding an African biomedical research community which also capitalizes on Drosophila as an affordable model organism.
The Manchester Fly Facility has also developed a range of outreach activities and resources:
- Two entertaining films about Drosophila “Small fly, big impact” (part 1 & part 2), which have proven popular and valuable online and in schools.
- Free-for-download lesson plans and the droso4schools support website, which grew from an initiative to establish flies as modern teaching tools at schools [LINK1; LINK2].
- Thoroughly tested approaches for multi-stand science fair displays; for example a successful neurobiology fair where Drosophila researchers joined ranks with mammalian neurobiologists and neurosurgeons.
- Novelties for engaging young children, such as Hama bead patterns. These can also be used for science fair flyers children can take home, ideal for using a “Trojan horse strategy” , in which we provide web links to lay resources on Drosophila that parents can investigate.
- The twitterbot “@fly_papers“, set up by Casey Bergman to provide an easy means to stay up-to-date with the fly literature . This information pipeline has recently been joined by Thomas Brody‘s new twitter feed “@interactivefly“.
- The Drosophila genetics training package  including the “Rough guide to Drosophila mating schemes” , developed for training newcomers to fly research, is now being used worldwide.
- Strategies to implement this training package in university courses, including flexible methods to electronically assess learned skills (see below).
Unfortunately, the third aspect, i.e. coordinating outreach activities within the Drosophila community, is presently difficult to achieve, and, as a community, we need to develop better means of communication. The visionary idea of the Drosophila Information Service to spread the word within the community and share good practice  needs to be translated into modern communication technologies, which can be as simple as a moderated newsfeed. Another strategy is to increase the visibility of existing materials. To this end, the Manchester Fly Facility has developed a website, complementary to FlyBase and The Interactive Fly, which provides a one-stop-shop for Drosophila science communication resources, also including growing lists of lay articles and material about the history of Drosophila research.
Long-term strategies: Targeting students
For our efforts to have profound effect, we need long-term strategies. One such strategy is to give flies a stronger prominence in biology school curricula. This strategy also has a lot to offer to schools. Flies provide exceptionally good conceptual understanding of biology and bring countless opportunities for exciting, low budget experiments with live animals that reflect contemporary research (see the droso4schools website). Another long-term strategy is to increase Drosophila teaching of university students. This audience is unique because they are non-expert members of the general public but are also potential future scientists. For example, to address the “general public” side of students, we can adapt the Drosophila resources developed for schools. In my experience, starting at this fundamental level is a good way to engage university students. To address “future scientists,” the fly genetics training package we described in G3  offers great opportunities. Originally, this training was developed for use in Drosophila research groups, to teach the fundamentals of classical Genetics and transgenics, as well as their application during mating scheme design. As explained in our more recent G3 paper , applying this training to university courses has a number of important advantages, including:
- Introducing students to the core strategies and concepts of genetic model organisms like Drosophila.
- Reflecting relevant training that students can directly apply if they choose to join a lab working with flies or other genetic model organisms.
- Improved learning by teaching the fundamental concepts of classical genetics in an integrated and applied way.
- providing training in strategic thinking and representing active learning at higher order, both desirable goals in university education.
- Flexibility; It can be used either as a stand-alone unit or integrated into courses on other subjects, including Genetics. Incorporating the module into genetics courses provides a potent means to address critical comments by Rosemary J. Redfield, who pointed out a need to change the focus of genetics courses away from classical topics and towards state-of-the-art molecular, genomics, and “omics” approaches . Embedding the Drosophila training module in a Genetics course alongside other modern techniques will ensure that basic classical genetics is taught in an efficient way that leaves space for other topics. The feasibility of this approach is demonstrated by our annual developmental genetics course at Manchester, where the fly genetics training has been successfully integrated .
This developmental genetics course includes up to 65 students. Assessing such large numbers for mating scheme design skills is not trivial. To make assessment more feasible, we developed a hybrid strategy, in which students solve a mating scheme task first on paper, and the solution is then queried using standard multiple-choice or multiple answer e-assessment questions. As explained in our G3 paper , this method combines the advantages of paper-based and electronic assessments, so that exams are more fair, and provide the flexibility to assess a wide range of knowledge and skills, including virtually every aspect of mating scheme design and the underlying classical Genetics, as well as the ability to translate between genotypic and phenotypic levels. As we point out, this strategy is not only suitable for genetics, but could as well be applied other disciplines requiring complex problem solving, such as mathematics, chemistry, physics or informatics. We used this assessment in three consecutive years, and have observed a reliable and realistic spread of marks that clearly highlights the stronger candidates. We are therefore confident that in-place strategies can be used to teach and assess Drosophila mating scheme design even to large cohorts of university students. Since the strategy is based on an interactive, interesting and unconventional method that engages students, it hopefully leads to a long-lasting and better appreciation of the usefulness of model organisms.
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