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A father smiling down at his young daughter as she washes her hands carefully with soap.

Empowering young people to make positive health choices during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published: 20 April 2021

While the early effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt by everyone, the full impact may not emerge for years to come. A generation of young people has been forced into a situation many of them don’t understand, and they may feel ill-equipped to make the right lifestyle choices. The LifeLab programme is working to help them overcome these new challenges.

A new challenge for LifeLab

LifeLab is ordinarily a hospital and school-based education programme, in which scientists and educators create experiences that empower young people to understand the science behind the health messages they receive in everyday life. It achieves this through hands-on activities and experiments designed to engage young people and spark an interest in their own health and wellbeing.

Two school students taking part in a science experiment at their desks, as part of the LifeLab programme.
Hands-on activities in the classroom with LifeLab.

"The emergence of COVID-19 immediately got us thinking about what support young people need to face this new challenge, and how best we could get it to them in a locked-down society. We had to pause our hands-on practical activities in March 2020, but we weren't going to let that stop us helping."

Dr Kathryn Woods-Townsend - LifeLab programme leader


The LifeLab team worked with Professor Mary Barker and colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine to develop the Teenager's Experience of COVID-19 (TEC-19) study, funded by the Institute for Life Sciences.

The study carried out online focus groups with teenagers to learn about their experiences of the pandemic. The team asked the participants to keep social media diaries and complete assessments of their diet, physical activity, mental health and wellbeing.

Next steps

Armed with insights from TEC-19, Kathryn's education team partnered with Professor Keith Godfrey and the University's saliva testing programme to develop a programme of science for health literacy.

The team felt that if young people were going to be asked to be involved in COVID-19 testing, social distancing and other public health actions, they should understand why, and how important these measures were for themselves and others.

Wit this in mind, they worked with young people online to create a variety of resources that would enable them to respond constructively to the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

These resources included the #ForOurFutures pack, a series of sessions for secondary schools and colleges to encourage participation with the saliva testing programme, and lessons themed as an escape room for primary schools.

"She had nothing she wanted to do, and no hope for the future. All the work that school was setting she had already done, or had no interest in, and nothing they were sending through was stretch for her, so for a bright girl, she was bored. The next day, she got your email with all the thoughts in. She has signed up for the EPQ MOOCs, is doing non-shoulder-injuring garden gym, has joined the online orchestra and has a spring in her step again. The resources are awesome."

Parent of a secondary school student

Resuming normal service

The programme has now updated its programmes to include COVID-19-related content, as well as developing a 'flight case' with resources to support teachers in delivering the learning in a school setting if they cannot visit LifeLab. The team is working with the University's IT Innovation group to make these materials more widely available.

Moving fully online enabled LifeLab to engage with young people from much further afield in the UK and abroad, with the Summer School 2020 programme seeing participants from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Turkey.

Our aim is to continue our increased reach and maintain the online delivery long term, spreading the LifeLab message even further.

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