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The Davies and Rinaldi laboratories led 'glitter-essence imaging', a craft-based engagement activity at Freeland Primary School Science Day on 17 March 2023 for Brain Awareness Week.

A group of scientists helping children make glitter images around a table in a classroom

The concept

Lab members designed the activity to illustrate the binding of antibodies and immune cells to sensory neurons.

The labs use cultures of human sensory neurons generated from stem cells with the purpose of understanding diseases of the peripheral nervous system, including autoimmune neuropathies, neuropathic nerve injury and immunotherapy-mediated neuropathies. Their research on antibodies and immune cells in peripheral nerve injury and disease is supported by the UKRI and the Little Princess Trust.

The activity was based on the concept of immunofluorescence and confocal microscopy imaging. By using glue and glitter on a piece of dark card, pupils were able to replicate the principle of colourless antibodies (i.e. the glue) being visualised with fluorescence probes of various colours (i.e. the glitter). The resulting multi-colour pictures were designed to mimic the images acquired in the lab via laser scanning confocal microscopy.

The activity was made possible by the generous support of the NDCN Public Engagement Fund with a grant of £457.25 to cover materials for the activity and travel expenses for the volunteers.

The activity

Eight researchers led the half-hour activity, with five classes of around 20-25 children aged 5-10 years old visiting the classroom during the day. The team showed examples of real fluorescent microscopy images of nerve cell cultures, and then the children used chalk pens to draw the outline of a neuron on pieces of black card, and used glue bottles to apply PVA glue in their preferred pattern. Their pictures were coated with glitter before shaking off, and repeating the process for another colour.

the outcome

The researchers asked the children to place a white sticker on either a smiley, neutral or unhappy face in answer to three questions: Did you understand the activity? Could you do the activity? Did you enjoy the activity? The overall response from the children was positive. By the end of the session many children became quite familiar with the terms, such as 'neuron', 'myelin' and 'antibody'. They seemed pleased to be able to take their pictures home with them.

One of the researchers who took part said: 'I was surprised to see that some children know about some scientific vocabularies (e.g. stem cell). Some students understood the introduction pretty well and were able to draw the neurons creatively. I believe that the seed of neuroimmunology will grow in the children's minds'.

Another reflected: 'I found the interaction with the children and the introduction session, and their engagement with the topic, the most rewarding. Hopefully the activity stimulated some more interest in science in the children.'

The team are now hoping to develop their activity into a stall-based event to take to science fairs and festivals.