Visualizing the invisible: class excursions to ignite children’s enthusiasm for microbes

Terry J. McGenity, Amare Gessesse, John E Hallsworth, Esther Garcia-Cela, Carol Verheecke-Vaessen, Fengping Wang, Max Chavarria, Max M Centro Nacional de Innovaciones Biotecnologicas, Søren Molin, Antoine Danchin, Eddy J Smid, Cedric Lood, Charles S Cockell, Corinne Whitby, Shuang-Jiang Liu, Nancy P. Keller, Lisa Y Stein, Seth R Bordenstein, Rup Lal, Olga C NunesLone Gram, Brajesh K Singh, Nicole S Webster, Cindy Morris, Sharon Sivinski, Saskia Bindschedler, Pilar Junier, Andre Antunes, Bonnie K Baxter, Paola Scavone, Kenneth Timmis

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We have recently argued that, because microbeshave pervasive – often vital – influences on ourlives, and that therefore their roles must be takeninto account in many of the decisions we face, soci-ety must become microbiology-literate, through theintroduction of relevant microbiology topics inschool curricula (Timmis et al. 2019. Environ Micro-biol 21: 1513-1528). The current coronavirus pan-demic is a stark example of why microbiologyliteracy is such a crucial enabler of informed policydecisions, particularly those involving preparednessof public-health systems for disease outbreaks andpandemics. However, a significant barrier to attain-ing widespread appreciation of microbial contribu-tions to our well-being and that of the planet is thefact that microbes are seldom visible: most peopleare only peripherally aware of them, except whenthey fall ill with an infection. And it is disease, ratherthan all of the positive activities mediated bymicrobes, that colours public perception of ‘germs’and endows them with their poor image. It is impera-tive to render microbes visible, to give them life andform for children (and adults), and to counter preva-lent misconceptions, through exposure to imagina-tion-capturing images of microbes and examples oftheir beneficial outputs, accompanied by a balancednarrative. This will engender automatic mental asso-ciations between everyday information inputs, aswell as visual, olfactory and tactile experiences, onthe one hand, and the responsible microbes/micro-bial communities, on the other hand. Such associa-tions, in turn, will promote awareness of microbesand of the many positive and vital consequences oftheir actions, and facilitate and encourage incorpora-tion of such consequences into relevant decision-making processes. While teaching microbiologytopics in primary and secondary school is key tothis objective, a strategic programme to expose chil-dren directly and personally to natural and managedmicrobial processes, and the results of their actions,through carefully planned class excursions to localvenues, can be instrumental in bringing microbes tolife for children and, collaterally, their families. Inorder to encourage the embedding of microbiology-centric class excursions in current curricula, we sug-gest and illustrate here some possibilities relating tothe topics of food (a favourite pre-occupation ofmost children), agriculture (together with horticultureand aquaculture), health and medicine, the environ-ment and biotechnology. And, although not all of themicrobially relevant infrastructure will be withinreach of schools, there is usually access to a mar-ket, local food store, wastewater treatment plant,farm, surface water body, etc., all of which can pro-vide opportunities to explore microbiology in action.If children sometimes consider the present to bemundane, even boring, they are usually excited withboth the past and the future so, where possible, vis-its to local museums (the past) and research institu-tions advancing knowledge frontiers (the future)are strongly recommended, as is a tapping into thenatural enthusiasm of local researchers to leveragethe educational value of excursions and virtualexcursions. Children are also fascinated by theunknown, so, paradoxically, the invisibility ofmicrobes makes them especially fascinating objectsfor visualization and exploration. In outlining someof the options for microbiology excursions, provid-ing suggestions for discussion topics and consider-ing their educational value, we strive to extend thevistas of current class excursions and to: (i) inspireteachers and school managers to incorporate moremicrobiology excursions into curricula; (ii) encour-age microbiologists to support school excursionsand generally get involved in bringing microbes tolife for children; (iii) urge leaders of organizations(biopharma, food industries, universities, etc.) togive school outreach activities a more prominentplace in their mission portfolios, and (iv) convey topolicymakers the benefits of providing schools withfunds, materials and flexibility for educationalendeavours beyond the classroom.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMicrobial Biotechnology
Early online date14 May 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 May 2020


  • Teaching
  • microbiology
  • mycology
  • excursion


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