The Virus Factory

7 December 2020

The Virus Factory

How 10-year-olds are getting a taste of cutting-edge science

A programme run by the Department of Physics at Oxford is giving pupils in years 5 and 6 the opportunity to take part in a real science research project, learn how scientists study viruses and meet the scientists themselves.

More than 120 young curious minds from four local primary schools have been exploring how viruses hijack cells and turn them into ‘virus factories’ – a timely topic for all. They are contributing to scientific research, learning more about how to analyse and visualise real scientific data and get an exciting taster of a variety of STEM careers available to them.

Identifying and classifying viruses

The programme is a collaboration between the Department of Physics’ Zooniverse, the world’s largest online citizen science platform, and researchers from Diamond Light Source. Over a series of three, hour-long online workshops led by Department of Physics Outreach Officer Helena Cotterill, the young scientists learn how to identify viruses in cells, classify the viruses’ stage of development and consider the impact of what they have seen. They also have the opportunity to consider the idea of training computers to analyse the data and to explore concepts like algorithms and decision trees.

‘We are using actual data and conducting ‘real’ science – this is a live research project,’ explains Helena. ‘The pupils are not just learning about viruses, they are learning about how you do science in general, through exploring data visualisation and analysis techniques. Even though I am running the sessions remotely through a video link, I am still able to talk them through hands-on activities and discussions to develop their analytical and enquiry skills. The children are brilliant; their capacity to learn is astonishing and they are perfectly able to cope with the content that we put in front of them.’

Data visualisation and analysis for kids

The Zooniverse team developed an app specifically for the children that adds a further dimension to the citizen science project: data visualisation and analysis. ‘We were keen that the children’s work wasn’t limited to identification and classification,’ explains Helena. ‘That next step of actually interpreting the data is critical and incredibly interesting so we wanted to integrate this into our project.

‘With the new app, for any one image that the children themselves have classified, they get to see everyone else’s classification of that image. It gives a great sense of how an individual’s efforts contribute to the project as a whole and could be something that is rolled out to other Zooniverse projects.’

The project concludes in December with the Department of Physics Family Christmas Lecture which will be presented by Helena along with two researchers from the project. This will give families the chance to experience this exciting work, learn more about viruses, and contribute to the research. The Family Christmas Lecture will take place on 10 December at 6pm.

The Department of Physics outreach team works with selected local schools; for more information about how the Department of Physics works with schools, visit

Find out more about Virus Factory

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