Running an outreach session can be daunting, but it also gives us the opportunity to step away from the lab and have some fun! Around British Science Week 2024, I used a Biochemical Society outreach grant to create and distribute packs of a game I developed, Cell Survival, to schools. Using this, I introduced cells and the mechanisms they use to adapt to changes in their environment to primary school pupils around the country. These resources helped to teach, engage and inspire pupils, and (most importantly) let them have a great time!

I’m a cell biologist, working on how cells survive and adapt to the environmental stresses which they face every day (Video 1). To communicate my research area to primary pupils, I have devised a board game (Cell Survival) where they take charge of the cells’ adaptation mechanisms (defences) and use them to defeat an array of environmental stresses (dangers) which arise during the game (Figure 1a). Cell Survival is available for free as a downloadable PDF with versions for both school and home, so that anyone can play it at any time they choose! Last year, I collaborated with a local artist, Muirheann McMahon, to upgrade the design. This year, I was awarded a Biochemical Society Outreach grant to create packs of the Cell Survival game, and associated activity sheets, to send to schools nationwide.

Figure 1

Cell Survival game. (a) Cell Survival set up and ready to play. (b) The dangers the cell faces in Cell Survival. (c) The defences the cell uses in Cell Survival.

Figure 1

Cell Survival game. (a) Cell Survival set up and ready to play. (b) The dangers the cell faces in Cell Survival. (c) The defences the cell uses in Cell Survival.

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Video 1: A cell defending itself against a danger. Animation used to help explain cell biology concepts behind Cell Survival.

https://youtu.be/XnGy_JaXEdE

Cell Survival is a board game where players take control of a cell and try to keep it alive over several turns. As they roll a die, players can either gain additional defences for the cell or encounter dangers. When they encounter a danger, the player uses the acquired defences to protect the cell. If the cell is still alive at the end of their turn, the player can move their game piece along a track one step closer to the finish. If their cell can’t overcome the danger, they have to move it back a space. Play continues until someone reaches the finish!

The dangers which can arise in the game are commonly encountered by most cells: mutation, heat, low oxygen, hunger and infection (Figure 1b). The defences the cell can use are the: sensor, messenger, organiser, responder and recycler (Figure 1c) corresponding to a signalling response leading to the cell changing which proteins it has, and therefore the jobs which those proteins can do to help it survive.

A Cell Survival lesson can be delivered either in person, over the internet through a video meeting app, or via short videos I have uploaded to YouTube. I introduce myself with some silly pictures, cells, cell signalling and environmental changes. I draw extensive parallels between what people would do under a particular scenario and what cells do: cells react a bit like we do, because we are made of cells! This helps the pupils relate to the cell from the start. I talk a bit about careers and different tracks to become a researcher. To keep things interesting, I use videos and animations within the slides (e.g., video 1), so it’s not just me talking constantly. I invite any questions as I go along, particularly when I’m visiting schools in person! After about 20–30 minutes, I introduce Cell Survival and the class breaks into small groups to play the game. Afterwards, I distribute activity sheets I’ve made which help occupy those who either don’t like the game or who have finished it within the allotted schedule.

I am limited to where I can go to deliver outreach sessions due to work and caring responsibilities. This means that I cannot reach the many schools that are outside my local area, many of which are also outside the local area of any biology research institutes! I wanted to overcome this geographic restriction and reach places that are further afield.

My time is also limited. Cell Survival is a game with many cards which, unfortunately, means preparing several sets of games is time-consuming and dull. I cannot reasonably prepare lots of games by myself. While I can ask schools to do this, it is a major drain on their time and discourages many from using Cell Survival. To overcome these two challenges, I used a Biochemical Society outreach grant to get the games printed and then send them out to schools. This required a lower time commitment from me to assemble packs than if I had had to cut them myself, and resulted in a much neater product. It was my real hope that this would also encourage a better uptake of the activity from schools with a more disadvantaged intake.

To get the games printed, I slightly reconfigured the game files so the cards were all the size of business cards, which can be printed by many companies! The gameboards I had printed on thick card to a high standard. I then spent a few evenings in front of the TV sorting cards into piles for each game and packaged them up in envelopes. For each school pack, I made up eight games, enough for a class of around 30. Some schools had multiple packs sent to them so they could run lessons with different classes simultaneously.

Cell Survival was delivered to 14 classes in seven schools around the country, easily overcoming geographic barriers (Figure 2a). I assessed the impact of the activity using a survey I sent out to teachers afterwards, while I also kept notes of interesting questions and interactions. Cell Survival resulted in very high pupil engagement and was highly recommended by the teachers, inspiring interest in both scientific careers and (unexpectedly) game design (Figure 2b–d). One of my hopes was that these packs would help Cell Survival reach more disadvantaged pupils. Despite not placing any selection criteria on the schools who received these packs, the schools this year had a slightly higher proportion of free school meal eligibility than average: albeit with a lot of variability (Figures 2e,_2024_125CFig2)! I also picked up some good tips for how I can improve the offering for next year and was overall delighted with how it went. Pupils ‘thoroughly enjoyed playing the cell game’, while schools told me I would be ‘welcome back any time ’. Pupils were particularly interested in how cells shape our world: ‘What would the world look like if there were no cells?’, ‘What would happen to your hand if it had no cells?’ and finding out more about the types of cells in our bodies ‘What are the differences between white and red blood cells?’ and the environment ‘What is the biggest cell?’. The most important part for me is that the pupils in these sessions had fun.

Figure 2

Cell Survival impact. (a) Locations where Cell Survival was delivered, and distances from me in Oxford. (b) Pupils engaged well with Cell Survival. (c) Cell Survival raised pupils’ interest in science. (d) Cell Survival was highly recommended. (e) Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility at schools engaged with the packs.

Figure 2

Cell Survival impact. (a) Locations where Cell Survival was delivered, and distances from me in Oxford. (b) Pupils engaged well with Cell Survival. (c) Cell Survival raised pupils’ interest in science. (d) Cell Survival was highly recommended. (e) Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility at schools engaged with the packs.

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I’m very conscious of the privileged position I’m in, and the luck I’ve had in being helped towards my current role by parents/teachers/careers and advisors/supervisors I’ve encountered along the way. I want to be one of those people helping others find their perfect career. Doing outreach is also fun, and really helps keep me sharp at thinking on my feet! Wonderfully, this year I was also sent a thank you card from one of the schools I worked with.

For most researchers at universities, our funding ultimately comes from the public. I think it’s therefore really important to tell the public about what we’re doing with their money and why! Designing outreach ideas and time into projects from the start is a great way to give motivation for this, and lots of funders now have a specific section for outreach funding. I’ve found creating Cell Survival has helped clarify for me the area of science I’m interested in, allowing me to start writing funding proposals and papers more confidently. Outreach helps justify our funding and increases interest and trust in science and scientists. By doing outreach activities, you’ll also meet people who’ve never met a scientist before and could inspire them on their own journey. While preparing your own resources can be challenging, I’ve created a game bank full of resources, including Cell Survival, you can use for whatever outreach activity you’d like. These can be adapted to your specific field. Please follow the links below, or get in contact with me and give it a go!

If you want to run Cell Survival, or a similar activity, planning ahead is key. First you need to find a school, which I do mostly through STEM ambassadors. STEM ambassadors is a great platform for connecting people who want to run STEM activities with those who want someone in STEM to come in. Make sure the activity fits your audience: Cell Survival is a little too complicated for high-footfall events such as science festivals. Once you have a school, ask the teachers what they want – they may have a science theme they’ve been learning about which you can incorporate. You’ll then need to prepare your own presentation (or I’m happy to share mine if you fancy saving a bit of time) and prepare the games – around eight is good for a standard class. Do this well in advance: it takes longer than you think! Remember to print off the activity sheets, and print a lot more than you think you’ll need: classes can be quite large, and some people may finish very early – you can always then ask them to draw more pictures!

Most importantly, be prepared to laugh, admit you don’t know things and go in with a smile on your face – you’ll come out with a bigger one!■

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Thomas D. Williams is a post-doctoral researcher in the Carvalho lab at the University of Oxford’s Dunn school of pathology, researching cellular lipid regulation. Since taking up outreach following the birth of his children, and encouragement from his then-employer the University of Dundee, Tom has designed many games to communicate concepts in cell and microbiology to young children and been involved in engagement activities which have reached over 10,000 people over the last 3 years including in schools, at science festivals and community events. Tom’s outreach has been recognized by the University of Dundee’s Brian Cox engaged researcher award 2023. He’s happy to talk outreach and share resources with anyone who wants! Twitter handles: @DrTomTORC, @CellBioGames. Email: thomas.williams@path.ox.ac.uk.

Published by Portland Press Limited under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND)