6 minute read

Life lessons from LifeLab

Empowering young people to make positive lifestyle choices has never been as important as it is now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But do young people have a voice, and do they understand the choices they can make to mitigate the impact of the situation on their lives? The work of researchers in Southampton’s LifeLab has been to ensure that they do.

While the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is being felt by everyone, the full impact may take years to be revealed.

A whole generation of young people has been thrust into a situation many of them don’t understand. In such an uncertain environment they may feel ill-equipped to make the right lifestyle choices.

Dr Kathryn Woods-Townsend, who leads the LifeLab programme as a partnership between the Southampton Education School and the Faculty of Medicine, explained: “The LifeLab team has spent the past 12 years developing a programme aimed at increasing scientific and health literacy among young people through raising awareness of the underlying science. We hope to inspire positive health-related lifestyle and behaviour changes by the LifeLab experience outside the school environment. 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.”

LifeLab is ordinarily a hospital and schoolbased education programme, in which scientists and educators create experiences that empower children and young people to understand the science behind the health messages they are exposed to in everyday life. LifeLab provides hands-on activities and experiments which engage young people and spark their interest in their own health and wellbeing.

“We had to pause our hands-on practical activities in March 2020, but we weren’t going to let that stop us helping young people,” said Kathryn. “We are committed to giving them a voice and a chance to explain what they are feeling about the pandemic, its impact on their lives and how they felt they could be better supported during lockdown.”

The LifeLab team worked with Professor Mary Barker and colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine to develop the Teenagers’ Experience of COVID-19 (TeC-19) study, funded by the Institute for Life Sciences. The study involved online focus group discussions with teenagers to ask about their experiences of the pandemic. Then they were asked to keep social media diaries and complete assessments of their diet, physical activity, mental health and well-being.


Combining the insights gained from TeC-19 and the principles underpinning LifeLab, Kathryn’s education team partnered with Professor Keith Godfrey and the University’s ground-breaking, population-level saliva testing programme to secure over £200,000 from the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a ‘science for health literacy’ programme.

The aim was to help reduce COVID-19 transmission by engaging young people in testing and other public health measures, such as the ‘Hands, Face, Space’ message.

Kathryn said: “We felt very strongly that if young people were going to be asked to be involved in COVID-19 testing, social distancing and other public health actions to reduce transmission, particularly in their school environment, it was vitally important that they understood why, and what the importance of the measures was for themselves and for others. So, we worked with young people online to co-create a variety of resources to enable them to respond constructively to the impact of the pandemic on their lives.”

The ‘science for health literacy’ programme formed part of the University’s saliva testing programme to extend testing into education settings. As a new component of the LifeLab programme, this sought to build resilience among young people and develop their decision-making skills.

The co-created resources included the #ForOurFutures pack and a series of engagement sessions for secondary schools and colleges to encourage participation with the saliva testing programme, alongside a novel Escape from Coronavirus escape room-themed series of lessons for primary schools.

“The LifeLab motto is ‘Change the beginning and you change the whole story’, so the early engagement with young people in the first lockdown was crucial to understanding their needs and providing the right support early on,” said Kathryn. “Feedback on the resources made it clear that young people wanted to be productive. Just like so many of us, they wanted opportunities to volunteer and be involved. It was hard for them to find these opportunities.”

One response from a parent of a secondary school student indicates the power of the LifeLab engagement.

They said: “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 stretching 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.”

Resuming normal service

At the heart of LifeLab is the aim to encourage teenagers to make positive lifestyle changes by enabling them to discover first-hand how their behaviours lay the foundations for a healthier life, and how this is linked to the health of the children they may have in future.

It could be said that never has this been more important as the population’s physical and mental health face an unprecedented struggle in the face of COVID-19.

LifeLab has already updated its programmes to include COVID-19-related content, as well as developing a ‘flight case’ with the resources needed to enable teachers to deliver all the learning in a school setting if visits to LifeLab are not feasible for some time. The LifeLab team is now working with the University’s IT Innovation group to make the materials even more widely available to expand their impact.

“We don’t expect to be able to open our LifeLab doors again until at least September 2021, so going fully online was key for us,” explained Kathryn. “A positive outcome of that is that we have been able to engage with young people from much further afield in the UK and abroad; our Summer School 2020 programme had participants from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Turkey, which was a very welcome first for us. We aim to be able to continue our increased reach and maintain the online delivery long term, spreading the LifeLab message even further.”

LifeLab is very much a multidisciplinary collaboration. Thanks and acknowledgments go to Lisa Bagust, Mary Barker, Kate Bartlett, James Batchelor, Michael Boniface, Sian Bryant, Andri Christodoulou, Claire Colbain, Nic Fair, Rachel Gagen, Keith Godfrey, Marcus Grace, Natasha Green, Mark Hanson, Luke Hughes, Hazel Inskip, Donna Lovelock, Stefano Modafferi, Cat Perrin, Stacey Sellick, Sofia Strommer and Lawrence Surey.


• LifeLab started in 2008 and moved to a state-of-theart education facility at the University Hospital Southampton in November 2013.

• The key principles underpinning LifeLab are that these health issues are socio-scientific issues and that education should equip adolescents with decision-making skills to make informed choices.

• The World Health Organisation estimates seven out of 10 people die from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and 80 per cent of these deaths could be prevented by healthier lifestyles.

• LifeLab aims to help address the underrepresentation of teaching about NCDs and their prevention in school curricula.

• Endorsed by professional bodies, LifeLab has supported public health strategies and policy responses to childhood obesity and informed early-stage interventions in England, Ireland, Spain and Oman.

• Since its inception, LifeLab has attracted £3.5 million in private and public sector funding for capital spending, programme design and delivery, and research.

For further information, visit: www.southampton.ac.uk/lifelab