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Masterclass makes secondary school students think (onco)logically

7 July 2021
Why do some people get cancer and others do not? How do you become a scientist? How do you translate research findings into medicines? Pre-university students can have all of these questions answered during the masterclass ‘(Onco)logical thinking’, an introductory course to scientific research in cancer offered by the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam Faculty of Medicine. The masterclass ‘(Onco)logical thinking’ is designed to entice interested pre-university students to consider a career in cancer research. Program coordinator Miriam van Strien: “I want to tell secondary school students that doing research is possible for anyone who can think creatively and is curious, regardless of their backgrounds.”

The course consists of four meetings led by two teachers. Students receive lectures on a scientific topic, in this case, leukemia or HPV, and can ask specialists questions. They are introduced to logical thinking and how to apply knowledge. In addition, they work in groups on a concluding assignment and everyone receives a certificate of participation afterwards. Six VU master's students of Oncology serve as tutors and each supervises a team of approximately five pre-university students.

Virtual confetti
During the concluding Zoom meeting of a recent online course, the teams presented their concluding assignment: a short movie about HPV or leukemia. During the presentations, some filled their screens with virtual confetti or brought us into a real nightclub setting, but it was also striking that many students had their cameras turned off. “Looking back, that was a missed opportunity”, says teacher and coordinator of the meetings Fenna Feenstra. "Probably a lot of students found it exciting but also a bit stressful, especially now with additional 'audience'." Family members and school teachers were also attending the concluding Zoom session.

Super impressed
However, black screens did not spoil the fun. The short videos that were shown made meaningful impressions. With animations, interviews and voice-overs, the students showcased their acquired knowledge about leukemia and HPV. Initiator Miriam van Strien was impressed. She said to one of the first groups: “I would actually like to ask you to join a lecture and show this.” Fenna was also enthusiastic and praised the originality of the students. One spectator even shouted that they were “Really super impressed!”

Introduce and inspire
The aim of the masterclass is to give pre-university students an introduction into scientific oncology research. Miriam hopes to make a more diverse group of students enthusiastic about this profession. “I tell students that you can choose many career paths with a university degree in oncology. Yet, we mainly see one student group that dominates: girls.” Miriam laughs. “We still have a world to win here. Inspiring boys is definitely on the list for the next edition.”

A lot of fun
One of the students, a fourth-year pre-university student Renske Joosten, qualified to participate following excellent grades and a desire to study medicine. What did she think of the masterclass? "It was a lot of fun. At first, I was a bit tense, but it turned out not to be necessary at all. You work in a team, so you are not always working on your own. The tutors made us feel at ease. A masterclass like this is a fun challenge, next to school. I'm glad I participated!"

Connecting to the world of pre-university students
Teacher Fenna was also satisfied. The recent master of Oncology graduate admits that it was sometimes a bit tense for her too. But Miriam complimented her. “The way Fenna designed all the Zoom sessions, guided everyone, and kept students focused on the task at hand was commendable. It really made our ideas come to life in educational Zoom sessions that suited the pre-university students perfectly.” Credits also go to secondary school teacher Jenny de Boer, who was closely involved in the development of the masterclass. She focused on providing input based on the students’ educational level and perspective: what will students find interesting and which classes can serve to raise interest? Jenny: “You really do need to provide enticing content.”

Research lab experience
In this first edition of the masterclass ‘(Onco)logical thinking’, the meetings took place online due to the pandemic. And although the reactions of participants were almost exclusively positive ('I enjoyed the meetings', 'so well organized', 'I have gained a lot more insight into cancer'), Miriam acknowledges the lack of a genuine research lab experience. “Next time, we definitely want to focus on a more hybrid format to give even more insight into oncology research at the university. Nevertheless, when I see the feedback of the students on the evaluation forms, I think we can be very pleased.”

A small group of select students, however, will soon be able to experience practical research firsthand. They are the members of the team that won the concluding video assignment and will be invited to visit our research laboratories. “That’s where science really happens,” Miriam concludes.

Additional information
The masterclass (Onco)logical thinking has been developed for Pre-University College, an initiative of the VU University Amsterdam to introduce secondary school students from class 4 VWO and up to the university. For more information and options, visit vu.nl.

Adapted from: ‘Masterclass zet middelbare scholieren aan het (Onco)logisch denken’, by Marre Roozen.