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Centre for Bioinformatics
Division of Molecular Biosciences
Faculty of Natural Sciences

Public Engagement of Science - Outreach to schools

The project - "Using Computers to Crack the Code of Life"

The Centre for Bioinformatics, Imperial College London, took part in a Royal Society Partnership Award with Mathilda Marks-Kennedy School to explain bioinformatics to primary school pupils aged 10-11. Professor Michael Sternberg explained to the pupils about the use of computers to understand biology (i.e. bioinformatics). The project was entitled "Using Computers to Crack the Code of Life".

Details of the sessions [top]

The first teaching session involved explaining how codes (technically ciphers) were developed to keep messages secret. The simple shift cipher was explained and how a cipher wheel can be used to hide and then reveal the message. Pairs of pupils in the class then sent secret messages to each other. The next step of the first session was to introduce the enigma machine used by the Germans in World War II to generate ciphers that were very difficult to crack and how the team at Bletchley Park broke these ciphers. The invention of the first computer, Colossus, at Bletchley was described. Each pupil took home a cipher wheel for their own use. Next there was a day trip to visit Bletchley Park. Bletchley kindly arranged an excellent tour for the school. The ideas of codes and ciphers were explained to the class. We were shown round the site and saw the different huts that the people worked in. The highlights of the tour were seeing an actual enigma machine and a rebuilt version of the first computer, Colossus. In addition, we sat in a reconstruction of a cinema from the late '30 and early '40s and we saw films from that period. The final teaching session explained the concept of biology encoding information determining how an organism looks and works. The concept of atoms was introduced by asking the class to pull apart a model made from Lego building blocks until they could no longer make any smaller unit. Then, using Lego blocks of different shapes, the concept of specifying a message by shape complementarily between two docked components was explained. The final part of the lesson focussed on the use of molecular graphics to look at atoms in biological molecules and how understanding shape can help in the systematic design of drugs. The graphics program PyMol was installed and the class experimented with moving molecules and changing their visual representation. The session ended by giving each pupil their own set of atoms to work with at home: a pack of Smarties! Each pupil was also given a certificate.

Assessment [top]

A major challenge in preparing the lessons was to work out how to explain these complex concepts, particularly in the session on biology and molecular graphics, to the class. A key component was in allowing hands-on work for the children throughout the session so their interest was maintained. The class were keen to engage in discussion with me throughout the sessions and often posed questions of their own.

Available teaching aids: Session 1 - Codes & Computers [top]

You can down load here:

Note this material could be used for any presentation on codes and the development of the first computer.

Available teaching aids: Session 2 - Biology, molecular graphics and drug design [top]


Last Modified 15 August 2006