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Hands-on scientific research for school students

14 October 2013

The Maurice Wilkins Centre is delighted to have helped secondary school students from around the upper North Island attend a unique hands-on science day recently. 
The Centre provided sponsorship for groups of students to travel from Kawerau, Rotorua and Whitianga to the University of Auckland.

“It was a brilliant experience for the students - they got to do practical, hands-on things that that I’ve only talked about or shown them videos of,” says Rana Elfarra, a teacher at Tarawera High School, who brought eight high-achieving Year 11‐13 students from the decile one school to the University with the support of the Centre.

“They got to sit in the lab, wear the lab coats and use the machines, and relate what they have learned in class to an actual university lab experience. It served a real purpose, which for me was to get them excited about science and also widen their horizons about potential careers.”

Ms Elfarra, who also won a Maurice Wilkins Centre Scholarship to attend the Queenstown Molecular Biology conference earlier in the year, has a PhD in biology and is always looking for opportunities like these to help her students aspire to academic study and high-achieving careers.

“We’re trying to expose students to modern science and give them an opportunity to be part of an actual scientific project,” explains Dr Justin O’Sullivan, a Maurice Wilkins Centre investigator from the University’s Liggins Institute, and one of the lead scientists behind the event run by Katoa New Zealand.

“We don’t have any preconceived ideas about what they should take away from the day. It’s really about letting them experience science for themselves, just as we would in the lab.”

Students from around the country spent a day at either the University of Auckland, Massey University’s Albany campus, the University of Canterbury or the University of Otago. They took part in a scientific experiment that aims to describe how bacterial populations are changing over time in New Zealand soils, and improve our understanding of the environment in which we live.

The students had earlier taken soil samples from their region, and sent them for genetic analysis at the University of Auckland. At the hands-on day, they went through the same process that the scientists used to extract and analyse the genetic information, to determine the bacterial species present in their local soils. Analysing genetic material from environmental samples in this way is called metagenomics.

The event gave students access to university expertise and equipment that secondary schools cannot provide. Alongside the hands-on work they had lectures about the experiment itself, science more generally and went on tours of labs in the School of Biological Sciences. Justin points out that the day was also an opportunity for school students to meet scientists and break down any preconceptions they may have.

“I do believe that we need to get science into schools and provide teachers with resources,” says Associate Professor Jo Putterill from the School of Biological Sciences, who ran the day at the University of Auckland with a team of 20 volunteer scientists, professional staff and students. The School also provided financial support for the event. “It’s a nice project because it’s about citizen science - getting the community involved in being interested in science, and also using the information to get a broader view of what’s in our soil.”

Katoa New Zealand is a group of scientists, businesses, educators and community members who wish to inform and educate New Zealanders about our environment and the power of genomics. Its next project, also working with secondary school students, is under development and may examine the microbial diversity in New Zealand’s air.

Sponsorship for this year’s event was provided by Massey University’s College of Sciences, Newmarket Rotary Charitable Foundation, the Maurice Wilkins Centre, the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, Custom Science, MO BIO Laboratories, and Kapa Biosystems. Volunteers from Massey University, the Universities of Canterbury and Otago also donated their time.

The Maurice Wilkins Centre is committed to supporting high-quality science education in New Zealand. It runs its own education events, such as science-focused professional development days for secondary school teachers, and also provides support for events such as the Katoa initiative.

For more information about Katoa New Zealand visit