Genetic Research Days; Project “Visit a lab” (“Tage der Genforschung”; Project “Schnuppertage im Labor”)

Aims

Students draw family tree ©Sekretariat "Tage der Genforschung" Under the supervision of scientists, students and interested visitors draw their family tree during a public event (14 June 2002, Berne, Switzerland).
The “Tage der Genforschung” (Genetic Research Days) want to enable contacts between researchers and the general public, in particular schools. This project aims to improve the public understanding of science, especially in the fields of gene technology and life science research.

Argument for inclusion

“Tage der Genforschung” is a nationwide network and facilitator of more than 60 projects each year, bringing together researchers, schools and the general public. It was one of the first initiatives in Switzerland within which many scientists left their so-called ivory tower to engage in a dialogue with society – and the dialogue still continues today. The project “Schnuppertage im Labor” (Visit a lab) is an excellent way to realize and foster this dialogue.

Relevant information in short


Main Research Partners

Research institutes from several universities and universities of applied sciences, private research institutes (e.g. Friedrich Miescher Institute) and diagnostic laboratories
Project “Schnuppertage im Labor” (Visit a lab): 20 research institutes from various universities and two diagnostic laboratories in the German- and French-speaking parts of Switzerland

Educational partners

Teachers and experts in teaching and pedagogical sciences are involved in selected projects according to the needs and the nature of activities. Project “Schnuppertage im Labor”: individual high school students or teachers

Other partners

Main sponsoring partners are: Gen Suisse Foundation, Berne, Förderagentur für Innovation KTI (Innovation Promotion Agency), Berne, Swiss National Science Foundation, Berne

Age classes

13 to 19 years, and the general public

Thematic orientation

Gene technology, medical sciences and related areas

Main Focus

To promote scientific literacy with special regard to gene technology and molecular medical sciences. To facilitate contacts between researchers and society, especially students and teachers. To enhance the transparency and visibility of research and to make it tangible.

Duration of activity

Individual events last one hour to one day. Each year in May and June, since 1999. Project “Schnuppertage im Labor”: half a day to one day

Resources

The Gen Suisse Foundation funds the head-office. Individual projects are financed directly by the organising institutions (faculty members, consumables etc.) – this applies for the project “Schnuppertage im Labor” – or are based on voluntary work by the researchers.

Website

www.gentage.ch; www.jours-du-gene.ch

Contact person

Kurt Bodenmüller, managing director

Context and conditions

In the 1990s, the general public’s increasing feeling of uncertainty towards molecular sciences made scientists recognize the need to open their laboratory doors and to get into direct contact with people. The “Tage der Genforschung” (Genetic Research Days) were initiated in 1999 by university researchers and interest groups from private industry. A head office was established to initiate projects and to organise platforms where scientists and particularly students and pupils could meet. The interest group involved is the Gen Suisse Foundation (financed by Interpharma, an interest group of the Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industry) which provides financial support, professional infrastructure and know how in science communication (e.g. in form of communication trainings and media relations consultation).

At the time of writing, “Tage der Genforschung” enjoys a broad sponsorship of 27 members (2008) from science institutions and academies, associations and organisations in the field of gene technology, medical sciences (e.g. Swiss academy of Sciences, Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC), Verein Forschung für Leben) and private industry. The latter covers the costs of the head office via a foundation.

Activities and contents

Each year in May and June, over 60 projects and events take place all over Switzerland, such as laboratory courses, panel discussions, school visits, exhibitions and stands with focus on gene technology and medical science.
Among the many interesting activities, the project “Schnuppertage im Labor” (Visit a lab) turned out to be exceptionally successful. The project started in 2003 and it regularly provides between 70 and 90 places to visit for a day. Interested persons can contact research institutes listed on the “Tage der Genforschung” website and ask for a “Schnuppertag” (visiting day). These visitors then spend half a day or a full day in a research laboratory, personally attended by a researcher. In 2007, a total of 34 persons took part of which 14 were students from high schools and vocational schools, 13 were teachers (mainly biology teachers from high school) and 11 were other interested persons (amongst them a vocational advisor, a lawyer, and a veterinary). Men and women are represented about equally among the visitors.

Feedback session

Some visitors’ feedback:

“I appreciated that there was no ideology in the discussions with the scientists.”

“I hope that some of the expertise you conveyed to me, I will be able to pass on to my students.”

Some researchers’ feedback:

“As I see it, we will be having another biochemistry student in a few years!”

“Interesting to me were the visitors’ questions relating to their job and private environments.”

3

Scientists introduce their visitors to their working place and explain their research projects. An extended dialogue develops, comprising the social impact of the research done (pictures and quotes “Schnuppertag im Labor”, Institute of Biochemistry, University of Zurich, 23 May 2005; last quote Institute for Cell Biology, University of Berne).

Methodologies and curriculum relevance

The project “Schnuppertage im Labor” (Visit a lab) facilitates the personal contact between scientists and non-scientists. This authentic contact and insight appeals to men and women likewise. First, these days allow to experience a researcher’s everyday work and understanding what research is. Secondly, this setting invites an exchange of ideas about science and society, promoting critical thinking, and the openness to reflect upon one’s personal viewpoint and to consider a different one.

There are no defined learning objectives, nevertheless, the project has considerable educational relevance: the research laboratories visited use gene technology and other molecular techniques. To understand the research projects and their contexts, much disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge is acquired. In addition, getting in touch with a researcher –a potential positive role model – is a good means to raise interest in science and technology.

Mutual benefits

“Schnuppertage im Labor” (Visit a lab) enhances the mutual understanding of scientists and the lay visitors involved: Researchers can share their everyday life experiences and fascination for research but also consider critical thoughts about their field of research. In addition, they practice how to address non-scientists in a coherent way, neither too complicated nor too superficial. Visitors get to know the human and transparent side of science besides learning about the latest findings in research and how these were obtained. The lab visits provide a platform to clarify misunderstandings and reveal one’s concerns about certain scientific issues. Especially for young students, the personal exchange with a scientist can be a key experience when it comes to the choice of a professional or academic training.

In the beginning of the project, researchers were rather reluctant to participate because of the additional workload. This reluctance subsided as feedbacks from both, visitors and scientists, are very positive. The authenticity of this contact is of mutual benefit and the effects go far beyond the one day spent together, bridging the gap between science and society.

Evaluation

All projects initiated by the head office, including the “Schnuppertage im Labor” (Visit a lab), undergo a self-evaluation. After a project has ended, the head office contacts the project leaders and asks for feedback following a standardised checklist. Additionally, personal feedback from participants is collected and analysed by the head office. Reports and impressions of the projects are regularly published at the end of the Genetic Research Days in a special journal.

Limits and possibilities

Despite the fact, that the project “Schnuppertage im Labor” (Visit a lab) is very successful, the effort of all the persons involved is big and time consuming when compared to other contact promoting projects between science and society (e.g. school visits, public events). Additionally, the benefits of the day in the laboratory are dependent on the quality of communication between scientists and visitors. So far, participating scientists were not trained to communicate with non-scientists, however since 2007, a basic course in science communication and additional support are offered to the researchers by the head office.

Usually, there is no expert in education directly involved (e.g. a visiting student’s teacher). However, one third of the visitors interacting with the scientists are teachers. In terms of the visitors’ possibilities to engage themselves in practical work there is large variation depending on the research laboratories’ options.

Due to the limited number of available places, only some dozens of people have the chance to visit a lab for a day. Therefore, this project’s outreach is rather small in terms of numbers - but for the scientists and the visitors involved it is a very valuable and long-lasting experience. In addition, teachers can act as multiplicators when talking to their classes about their visiting experience.