Science, not fiction - How a disruptive innovation is helping the advanced therapies sector gear up to the challenge of bringing T Level science students into their laboratories - by bringing the laboratories into their classrooms

by Stephen Stewart, Head of Skills & Apprenticeships at the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult (CGT Catapult)

T Levels were introduced in 2020 as the new gold standard in technical qualifications. They were described by the Department for Education at the time as sitting at the heart of “the widest reaching and most significant reforms to technical education in a generation.”[1] The new science T level is one of several compelling new tools that have been introduced to help ensure the UK’s next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians are equipped with the skills needed to help propel our advanced therapies industry into becoming one of the British economic powerhouses of the mid-21st century and beyond.

The challenge of work experience

T Levels offer a non-academic route for young people to access specialised training to set them up for future study and a successful working life. Yet, challenges remain and with work experience at the core of the T Level syllabus, one of these is to ensure 16 to 18 year olds are not disadvantaged by procedural and safety requirements that might limit easy access to tightly controlled environments such as laboratories and clean rooms.

There are also geographic considerations that may affect a student’s ability to gain the necessary on-site experience, one of which is the dominance of clusters in certain industries. This is because, if a student does not live near to site where they can gain the necessary experience, they may need to decide between a relocation or costly commute, options many may not wish to entertain.

The solution for some however may lie in a ground-breaking new initiative using Virtual and Mixed Reality technology.

Pioneering educational tool

Virtual Reality (VR) has become increasingly popular in entertainment and education. Last year, we used VR to demonstrate what it is like to work in a laboratory to a group of school pupils at our Careers Insight Day. Our aspiration for VR is that it will support our industry in showcasing the positives of a career in life sciences.

Indeed, the benefits are tangible: VR makes a career in science more accessible by breaking down the barriers that exist for school and college students to see inside a laboratory or science manufacturing facility, without the dangers and risks posed by a real lab. Perhaps most telling of all is that using VR is a lot of fun and enriches the curriculum for students.

A group of 16-18 year old students from schools in Stevenage took part in a Careers Insight Day at CGT Catapult’s Skills and Training Laboratories

“Virtual Reality is the next step in digital transformation of education”

Our Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship Community, ATAC, has been working closely with a UK based company called FourPlus, pioneers of VR training for the sector, who have created some exciting new training tools. Now, with the continued support of Innovate UK and in collaboration with the University of Birmingham and Professor Ivan Wall, co-founder of FourPlus, we are working together on using VR to help attract early talent into the sector by structuring and packaging VR technology for science T level students.

To explain more about this transformative approach, we sat down with Professor Ivan Wall to discover how he aims to help today’s students become tomorrow’s advanced therapy leaders.

Ivan, what is your background and how did you come to work with the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult and the advanced therapies sector?

I began my academic career working on bioprocessing of regenerative medicines as a lecturer at UCL Department of Biochemical Engineering in 2009. It was here that I first worked with CGT Catapult to develop exosome therapeutics, on a project led by ReNeuron. My team’s role was to develop microfluidic testing to identify best candidate conditions for scale up and then CGT Catapult performed scale up validation studies using different technology platforms. I subsequently moved to Aston University and then the University of Birmingham, where I am Professor of Regenerative Medicine.

Throughout my academic career I have designed new and innovative training courses, modules and degree programmes to support skills growth for advanced therapies manufacturing. In 2020, I co-founded FourPlus with Dr Hayley Mulhall. FourPlus is an immersive technology company, and a major focus is creation of virtual reality software for hands on training to support life and health sciences, across education and industry. We set up FourPlus because we saw a need for a radical change in how we provide skills training to generate a strong and competent talent pool. FourPlus has built VR training packages to automate and standardise training for the sector and apprentices.

You are working on a package of VR opportunities for schools – would this be the first of its kind in the UK?

VR has been used in different industries including education for some time now. However, FourPlus has created a first of its kind platform for students and sector employees to undertake modular training to learn critical behaviours and skills that are normally time-consuming and simply not feasible to do in physical labs. Our collaboration with CGT Catapult and University of Birmingham has enabled widespread testing of the technology with students, apprentices and NHS staff. This step change for how skills training is delivered is central to digital transformation of education.

“We saw a need for a radical change in how we provide skills training to generate a strong and competent talent pool”

Professor Ivan Wall

How would you describe the technology and platform to someone who is not familiar with VR?

With virtual reality, users experience a virtual environment viewed through a head-mounted display. Hand controllers allow users to interact with objects in the virtual world. There are no limits to what can be created in VR, from replicas of real places to imaginary worlds. We use VR to create replicas of real laboratories, manufacturing facilities, hospital rooms and more. Students can then undergo training in those environments, to develop knowledge and skills, for example in following procedures accurately. All this is done in the VR headset, meaning students can learn safely and at their own pace, before they ever set foot in a physical facility. Students train faster, safer and have deeper understanding of what they are learning.

What is the difference between virtual and mixed reality?

Mixed reality uses pass through cameras so VR can be experienced in combination with the physical room.

How valuable can this platform be for the future of science education?

VR is the next step in digital transformation of education. UK education still focuses on academic performance measured through written exams that rely mostly on recall, with limited synthesis of knowledge or understanding of its application in the workplace. VR enables hands on training that prepares students for the workplace – by immersing them in environments that are digital replicas of real-world facilities containing industrial equipment that is not found in schools and colleges. The VR platform also ensures consistency in hands on training across different schools, meaning leavers will all possess the same knowledge and same experience, making education more equitable. There are other significant benefits to VR too, for example reducing waste streams from PPE and other plasticware that ends up being incinerated or in landfill. Moreover, trainees learn faster and more effectively, and so overall training costs are reduced and student experience is boosted.

A ground-breaking initiative with early successes

The Department of Education has endorsed our initiative and is keen to monitor how the programme performs. A spokesperson said: “The Department for Education is supportive of the ground-breaking initiative being delivered by FourPlus, the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult and University of Birmingham. The programme explores how virtual reality can support skills development for young people in the advanced therapies sector, allowing these students early access to a laboratory setting to prepare them for placements in industry. This VR technology is being used by providers delivering the science T Level, to help prepare students for their industry placements and make sure they can make a meaningful contribution to the workplace. Innovative solutions such as this are excellent ways to support skills development and we are excited to learn more about the outcomes of this work.”

Initiatives such as Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship Community (ATAC) and the National Apprenticeship Week Roadshow, are helping convince more students to consider science and the advanced therapies sector as a career option

The last word comes from the students themselves, whose reactions were captured at our Careers Insight Day and convey both the impact VR technology had on them as well as the appeal of the advanced therapies sector as a whole.

“I came today not knowing what to expect”, explained one female student we spoke to. “I am now seriously considering a career in life sciences, whereas before I was only thinking about it. The VR tool was incredible and really helped me understand more about a laboratory, and I feel far more educated in the different areas and what they achieve, in order to be able to think of this as a potential career. It really opened my eyes to the range of treatments within cell and gene therapies”.

Her friend agreed, arguing that the more choice and opportunity he has, the higher the chances of career success: “It’s clear there are many different opportunities and ways of getting into this industry, indeed there seem to be many pathways to success in the life sciences sector, which are very rewarding. I learnt a lot more about apprenticeships and post-school opportunities that I didn't know. Apprenticeships can take you equally as far as degrees and you can branch into science-based careers. This shows me how available and beneficial scientific apprenticeships can be”.

“The knowledge I gained today about life sciences has totally changed my views,” enthused another student after trying out the VR headsets. “Life sciences has so many applications in the world that I never knew about. I also got to see the day-to-day responsibilities of people working in this field, plus insights into the types of jobs and what people generally do in this sector.”

For the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, we’re looking forward to see more T level students and apprentices benefit from using VR and hope it will help recruit the scientists of the future.

Take a look at the CGT Catapult's Skills and Training page to find out more about its work in this area.