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Karen & Darwin's specimens

As Nick Alford has already mentioned, our soon-to-be travellers visited the Natural History Museum in London a few weeks ago. The main purpose was a series of meetings to prepare them for the trip, but they got a special treat of a behind-the-scenes look at the Museum’s laboratories and collection.

The tour was organised by Karen James, the scientist who will accompany the girls on their trip and Karen has uploaded a set of pictures from the day on our Flickr page.

I also recorded a quick interview with the girls, asking them what they were looking forward to most about the trip.

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Winners!

“Mr Alford called us and said, well it’s not good news I’m afraid…. it’s amazing news! And I just started screaming!”

That was the reaction of Charlotte Woodfield on hearing the news that her and twin sister Jessica, along with friends Eleri Morgan and Becky Hill had won the trip of a lifetime to the Galapagos Islands.

The four girls from St Cyres School in Penarth, Wales, are the winners of the Survival Rivals competition, part of the Wellcome Trust’s celebrations to mark the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. Last week, at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, the girls were presented with their ‘golden tickets’ in front of festival goers, family and friends by head judge and Blue Peter presenter Steve Mould.

The competition was based around the Survival Rivals experiment kits inspired by Darwin’s ideas that the Wellcome Trust distributed to secondary schools around the country. Students were asked to make short films that communicated the experiments and the theories behind them, but in an engaging and imaginative way so that anybody would be able to understand.

When I was asked to judge the competition, I was initially sceptical about how good the entries would be. I didn’t imagine schools would have great access to film making equipment. I was pleased to be proven wrong. The standard of entries was very high and I was extremely impressed with the resourcefulness of the students. But all the judges agreed that the St Cyres team stood out above the others.

The girls used the X-Bacteria kit, designed to investigate how bacteria can swap antibiotic resistance genes between each other. They explained how the experiment works as if they were talking to Darwin himself, discussing how science has moved forward thanks to his ideas.

The result is a film that, for me, captures the very essence of scientific discovery. Although Charles Darwin’s ideas were clearly revolutionary, equally as important is the way those ideas have been progressed and are still being challenged by the experiments and investigations of others. But don’t take my word for it, you can watch for yourself.

Their reward is the chance to follow in Darwin’s footsteps, with a field trip out to the Galapagos Islands. The girls will be accompanied by their teacher, Mr Nicholas Alford, who assisted the girls with their winning entry and is possibly even more excited.

“Every teacher dreams of a trip to the Galapagos,” he said, “it’s the closest thing to a pilgrimage that I’m likely to get!”

Mr Alford thanked the Wellcome Trust for their support of science teaching and the Darwin 200 resources, which he says have made it a really exciting time to be a biology teacher. Glad to hear we’re helping!

Joining them on the trip will be Dr Karen James, scientist at the Natural History Museum and renowned science blogger. Karen will help the girls to document their experiences online through blogging and social media, so that the team can diarise their thoughts, observations and feelings in much the same way that Darwin did with his Journal of Researches. These will be collected into an e-book at the end of it all, but will also enable you to follow their enviable journey too. You can follow their adventures on this very blog and check out images from their trip on their flickr account here.

Jen Middleton, Media Officer, The Wellcome Trust

The winners with Steve Mould

The winners with Steve Mould

The winners of the Wellcome Trust’s Survival Rivals competition to send a group of UK students to the Galapagos Islands were announced today at the British Science Festival in Birmingham.The four students will present their winning film to Festival visitors before collecting their golden ticket to retrace Charles Darwin’s famous voyage from judge and TV scientist Steve Mould.

As part of celebrations for Darwin 200, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 1809, the Wellcome Trust distributed Survival Rivals experiment kits inspired by Darwin’s ideas, free of charge, to state secondary schools across the UK. Entrants to the competition were invited to submit short films and photographs to communicate the science behind these experiments in an engaging and imaginative way.

The winning students are Jessica Woodfield, Charlotte Woodfield, Becky Hill and Eleri Morgan from St Cyres School in Penarth, Wales. The girls were ecstatic on hearing the news: “We are overwhelmed by this once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the Galapagos. It is a dream come true. The time since hearing that we have won has been surreal, we can’t stop smiling! We would like to thank the Wellcome Trust for this fantastic opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.”

Their teacher, Nicholas Alford, who supported the girls throughout the experience, added: “It is a great honour to win this prestigious award. Every biology teacher always dreams of ‘a field trip to the Galapagos’. It is a lifetime’s ambition to see the place that inspired the idea that changed the way that we see the nature of life itself. I am very grateful to the Wellcome trust, not just for the prize, but for their many other contributions to support the teaching of biology in our schools.”

Three Survival Rivals kits were available, targeted at different ages, each exploring different themes of natural selection and the theory of evolution. ‘I’m a Worm, Get Me Out Of Here!’ looked at the effects of environmental adaptation on survival and evolution, while ‘Brine Date’ focused on how sexual selection influences which genes are passed down to the next generation. The St Cyres team used the ‘The X-Bacteria’ kit to investigate how antibiotic resistance is passed through populations of bacteria. Their video depicts the team hard at work in the lab, whilst eloquently explaining the deeper scientific concepts involved in their experiments.

Judge Steve Mould, Blue Peter’s science expert, comments: “The quality of the entries was amazingly high. And I’m not surprised there was stiff competition with such a great prize up for grabs. In the end it was the clarity and enthusiasm of the St Cyres team that stood out above the others. The story of how science has moved forward thanks to Darwin’s ideas was told brilliantly. If Darwin were alive today he would likely be studying bacteria too.”

The Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean are well known for having provided the inspiration for the revolutionary ideas and hypotheses of Charles Darwin. He travelled there on board the HMS Beagle as part of a survey expedition in 1835. Through close study of the islands’ plants, animals,birds and reptiles, he proposed that many of them had developed from common ancestors and adapted to their environment over millions of years.

These ideas formed the basis of his book – ‘On the Origin of the Species’ – in which he set out his theory of evolution by natural selection. The book, which was highly controversial at the time, revolutionised the way we view ourselves and Darwin himself went on to become one of the most influential scientists of all time.

The group will depart for their two-week trip on 16 October accompanied by Dr Karen James, a scientist at the Natural History Museum. Under her guidance, the students will record their observations, thoughts, speculations and photographs from the trip with blog posts and Twitter, so that the world can follow their enviable journey online. This will provide source material for an ebook to be written and published approximately six months after the trip.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement commented: “Darwin’s ability to communicate his ideas was arguably as important as the ideas themselves. A trip to the Galapagos Islands is a once in a lifetime experience. We hope that it will inspire the students in all sort of ways, not only deepening their knowledge and understanding about the world, but also in how to communicate their ideas to family and friends.”

Eleven runner-up schools will each receive £650 worth of audiovisual equipment.

For further information on the competition or to order the experiment kits, visit the Survival Rivals website.

You can follow the students’ trip online through this blog from 16 October.

Welcome to Galapagos Live: Survival Rivals on Tour! More coming soon.

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