The University of St Andrews hosted a visit from Forfar Academy on Monday August 18th, to help an enthusiastic group of S5 pupils begin to explore the use of computers in biology.
Dr Daniel Barker of the University’s School of Biology and PhD students Rosanna Alderson and James McDonagh of the University’s School of Chemistry used 9 Raspberry Pi computers loaded with “4273pi” , a customised version of the Linux operating system developed at St Andrews for teaching and learning computational biology.
Pupils were guided through practical examples to gain hands-on experience of research-grade computing applied to biological problems. One pupil remarked: “The best part of the activity today was learning how useful computers are in biology and having the chance to use the software that scientists use. I enjoyed the entire day and there wasn’t one part I didn’t enjoy. It was really interesting.”
Working along with Forfar Academy staff – Mr Stuart Sweeny and Mr Leigh Duncan – in the afternoon researchers showed the seven pupils how to use the Linux operating system, work with the Perl computing language, and find related sequences using BLAST software on the Raspberry Pi. “The best part was creating Perl scripts as we got to see how an ordinary computer works”, commented one sixth former.
After refreshments (funded via a grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council ) in the Bell Pettigrew Museum, pupils worked on into the evening. They learnt about discovering where genes actually are, within genome sequences – using an example from real research based at the University of St Andrews .
“The best part was going on flybase because I found it really interesting”, commented another sixth former.
This was the second 4273pi outreach event, and the first to be held at the University rather than at a school. Researchers were delighted with the enthusiasm of pupils and their ability to grasp new computing approaches to problem solving in biology.
All the pupils involved intend to go to university, where they will benefit from this early grounding in practical scientific computing.
Mr Stuart Sweeney, Teacher of Biology at Forfar Academy, felt the best aspect was “the pupils being given the opportunity to contextualise their theory based work in class into a practical application using the software”. Further, “The pupils were all fully engaged and gained a great deal from the seminar. I have also gained an insight into bioinformatics which will be vital for teaching the next part of the new higher on genomics”.
The overall verdict from Mr Leigh Duncan, Teacher of Physics at Forfar Academy: “Excellent, thoroughly recommended for other schools to take part!”
Contact: Daniel Barker