University of St Andrews staff visited Kilgraston school, at Bridge of Earn in Perthsire on Friday June 6th to help an enthusiastic group of S5/S6 pupils begin to explore the mysteries of computational biology.
Dr Daniel Barker and Dr Heleen Plaisier of the University of St Andrews’ School of Biology brought 9 Raspberry Pi computers loaded with “4273pi”, a customised version of the Linux operating system developed for teaching and learning computational biology
at the University of St Andrews.
Pupils were guided through practical examples to gain hands-on experience of research-grade computing applied to biological problems. One pupil remarked : “I liked the programming – making files and commands – because it was really interesting to see how computers actually work”.
Working along with Kilgraston staff – Dr Muriel Comrie and Mr Gavin Muirhead – in the morning researchers showed pupils how to use the Linux operating system, work with the Perl computing language, and run BLAST software on the Raspberry Pi.
In the afternoon, pupils learned about discovering where genes actually are, within genome sequences – using a case-study based on real research happening at the University of St Andrews.
“Comparing gene sequences in different species [was] very interesting and it was good to see the computer program working in a practical and genuine situation. I also enjoyed the problem solving aspect”, commented one sixth former.
This was the first 4273pi school outreach event. Researchers were delighted with the enthusiasm of pupils and their ability to grasp new computing approaches to problem solving and pick up important biological concepts along the way.
Pupils and staff both enjoyed getting involved with real computing problems. ICT Manager Gavin Muirhead was pleased to watch: “…pupils who had never written code program Pis, then seeing their excitement when the code worked.”
The activity allowed the 4273pi project team to test teaching material in a school for the first time. All the pupils involved intend to go to university, where they will certainly benefit from this early grounding in practical scientific computing.