Fifth grade students of VBS Maleizen were introduced to the fascinating world of bacteria

Within the framework of the ‘Science on the Road’ VIB school project, and in light of the Day of Science (November 28th), PhD fellows Elen Louwagie and Silke Vercauteren from the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology visited the fifth grade of VBS Maleizen. Through interactive quizzes, experiments, and a themed game on the playground, the children discovered the fascinating world of bacteria.

The VIB school project ‘Science on the Road’ aims to trigger scientific enthusiasm amongst 10- to 12-year-olds. In just a few years’ time, these children will choose their course of study, and eventually a professional career. Given the challenges that humanity is facing, there is no doubt that the world will need a next generation of passionate scientists. Being young scientists ourselves, we felt it our duty to make a contribution and that is why we signed up for this project. Also, it sounded like a lot of fun, and … it was!

We are both microbiologists, working in the lab of professor Jan Michiels. Our PhD revolves around bacterial persistence, which is an antibiotic survival strategy that differs from the better-known mechanisms of resistance. Given our background, we wanted to introduce the children to the different kinds of microbes and more specifically, we wanted to dive more deeply into the fascinating world of bacteria.

evident that most of the students already had a good notice on the topic. We then discussed how we can protect ourselves against pathogenic bacteria, which led to a first experiment to demonstrate the importance of proper hand hygiene. The students were asked to touch an agar plate with unwashed hands, with hands that were freshly washed with water and soap, or with hands that were rubbed with alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The agar plates were

incubated for two days to visualize residing microbes. Next, we discussed how bacterial pathogens are treated in a clinical context, which led us to explain the working of antibiotics. To prove that antibiotics work and knowing that Actimel contains useful Lactobacillus species, the children first made a dilution series and then plated diluted Actimel on two agar plates: one without antibiotic and one containing the antibiotic streptomycin.

On Monday November 29th, we visited the primary school VBS Maleizen. We started by introducing ourselves, VIB and our lab and then we presented an overview of the different types of microbes. Almost instantly, we were showered with lots of spontaneous questions from the students. We must say, we were truly amazed by their enthusiasm and curiosity. While doing a small quiz about useful and pathogenic bacteria, it became

persistence as an alternative survival strategy. These concepts were clarified by playing a tag game on the playground in which the tagger was the antibiotic and the others were bacteria that could try to survive by becoming resistant or persistent. At the end of the day, 

we showed some fun things you can do with bacteria. In a video, the children could see their teachers trying their best at agar art in our lab. The resulting plates could rival with some of the best modernist paintings! A rightful winner was then voted by the students.

Two days later, we went back to the classroom to look at the agar plates. The children were impressed by the variety of microbes present on their hands, and at the same time understood the importance of proper hand hygiene. It also seemed that hand sanitizer killed more microbes compared to hand washing, although this is probably because it affects the useful skin microbiome as well. The students also witnessed that Lactobacillus species in Actimel can be effectively killed by the antibiotic. To further challenge their curious minds, we tackled the problem of antibiotic resistance and explained bacterial 

While we did put quite some time and effort in this project, visiting the school was very rewarding. The children’s enthusiasm and curiosity already make us look forward to visiting a school again next year. In short, we highly recommend to join the ‘Science on the Road’ project and give it a try yourself!