Scientists have a problem: they find it hard to convey their knowledge and the importance of their research to the general public and, making time for this, clearly adds to the challenge. Sure, programmes like Stargazing Live and Big Blue Live are helping lead a fresh wave of interest in science, but they often focus on popular events or topics which have already made it into the limelight of interest. Faculty researchers at the Manchester Fly Facility are coming up with novel strategies to reach the public aiming to enthuse about less known topics, in their case the importance of Drosophila research.

Drosophila is better known as the fruit fly. It has been used in the research for 5 Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine and over 100,000 scientific papers have been written about it. Its importance to science cannot be overstated and yet it is hardly taught in schools and its significance is little known by the general public. The Manchester Fly Facility addresses this unfortunate shortcoming with a series of well-designed resources for teachers inspiring them to use the fly as a powerful modern teaching tool for curriculum-relevant topics in biology lessons, and in this way to reach broad young audiences.

Professor Andrea Prokop states:

Drosophila is the conceptually best understood animal we have, it is used by over ten thousand scientists worldwide for cutting edge research, and it is easy to keep in schools for captivating, memorable experiments that bring life into classrooms. In a nutshell, flies have all the ingredients to convey conceptual understanding of biology as well as the thrill and relevance of science as a subject and future career perspective.

The team so far have built an impressive portfolio of teaching resources including fully developed lessons with support information,  two animated YouTube videos explaining the history and importance of fly research (below), a computer game, a dedicated web page with support information for schools, and they have built a repository listing hundreds of further educational resources available online. All resources are explained in greater detail in a recent blog by Andreas Prokop, and they are clearly picking up in popularity as indicated by the many views and shares of the various internet pages.

The resources are built on long-standing experiences that the team has with school visits, where Drosophila is always a warmly greeted guest. This approach has now been taken to the next level with the “droso4schools” project. On this project, doctoral students went into two schools, Trinity CoE High School and Loreto Sixth Form College, to work as teaching assistance for months. This allowed the team to develop an understanding of the biology curriculum and school realities, to then use this knowledge and develop biology lessons in which Drosophila is being uses as a powerful modern teaching tool, made memorable through simple but telling experiments with living flies.

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Flies are kept in small vials with a bit of food at the bottom: ideal for maintaining them even in schools.

Surita Lawes, Head of Science and Maths Faculty at Loreto College, said about a lesson on genetics and alcohol developed at her school:

By studying mutations in Drosophila, our students have been exploring how alcohol and human culture affects our genetic make-up. It’s an excellent way for teachers to meet the challenge of revising many areas of the new linear syllabus using a topic designed to spark an interest.

Also students loved the new way of teaching. After an experimental session using a simple climbing assay comparing the performance of old versus young flies, Tof Apampa from Trinity High said :

Having the flies in the classroom was good fun.  It was so clear to see how the old flies were less mobile then the young ones.  We then learnt how this can help us understand aging in humans.  It also showed in a really clear way how using a large sample size is important when we are looking for patterns in scientific data.

The Fly Facility is looking to pave the way to make science more relevant and accessible than ever before – and they’re doing it with the humble fruit fly.

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A simple, 5-10 minute colour reaction experiment demonstrating the genetics behind enzyme activity. Click to enlarge.
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