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Alien invasion aids progress of science

"We were working with alien snot today," a young lad tells his mum excitedly in the playground at Williamwood High. "That's nice," she says. "Now calm down and get in the car . and don't touch anything."

Of course, there are no aliens in East Renfrewshire. So Scott and his fellow pupils had not really been working with alien snot. It was alien slime.

"Pour the glue into the beakers," the visiting primary school pupils had been told earlier in the afternoon. "Add the dye and give it a good stir. Then measure the right amount of borax solution, pour it into the glue and stir it again."

The children go at it with obvious relish, squeezing the bright yellow slime the mixture makes through their fingers. "This would be my favourite part so far," says Amy O'Neill.

"Science is pretty good at primary school," says Louise Whittington, "but the teacher talks more and you don't get to make things as much."

Since this was the first of three days of a science academy run by Strathclyde University's Innovative Routes to Learning last month, there would be plenty more to make in the days ahead.

"We've got Primary 7 pupils here from schools all over East Renfrewshire - about 90 kids in all," says development officer Amanda McLeod.

"This kind of event is a spin-off from the summer academies that we run every year. Local authorities sometimes get in touch and ask us to develop specific events, such as P7 to S1 transition academies. This is one of those - with a science slant because East Renfrewshire is keen to increase participation in science after second year. We ran it for the first time last summer and it was very successful."

There is a discernible difference in pupils who come up to secondary school having attended the science academy, says Morag Ferguson, a regular mentor on the summer academies, who also happens to be Williamwood High's faculty head of science.

"I had five kids in S1 this year who had been on the science academy last summer. They stood out right away. Their science is better. Their group work is better. They are more confident. They know their way around a lab."

Each of the three days of the science academy features a different challenge, with a focus in turn on chemistry, physics and biology. The slime-making activity on the first day is part of Alien Invasion, in which the youngsters, working in groups, carry out some simple chemistry analyses to learn more about a "body of extra-terrestrial origin discovered in a field next to a crash site".

Chemical tests on "alien" slime, water and "venom" (a substance that reacted with blood to effervesce) are backed up by a close examination through a microscope of pollen found on the alien's body.

"That was quite hard," says Andrew Pilkington. "We've never used a microscope in primary school. It was kind of complicated, getting the right focus and stuff. They showed us how, but we couldn't get it to work at first. Then we did. The biggest problem was my eyelashes - they kept getting in the way."

It appears boys have long eyelashes nowadays because Robert Clarkson is having exactly the same problem, he says, as he peers through the lenses at alien pollen from the planet Ravra. "What appealed to me about coming along to this was the CSI activity we'll be getting on the last day. I'm really into that whole crime scene investigation thing."

"I'm just here for the science," says Steven Watson. "I like it and I want to do it when I leave school. We don't get enough in primary."

Summer academy sessions are run by mentors, each of whom has responsibility for groups of youngsters for the duration. Normally these are practising teachers enlisted by the university for the event. But today there seem to be two different types of mentor.

What is the difference between those wearing dark and light blue sweatshirts?

"About 20 years," Ms Ferguson replies pointedly. "The first are teachers; the second are sixth-year students who have volunteered to come in and help out."

Lorna McIntosh aims to study medicine after school and will be taking Advanced Higher chemistry, physics and biology this year. She is happy in the meantime to share her expertise. "I do a lot of work with younger kids. I like passing on what I know. I want them to get as much out of science as I do," she says.

Taking part in a shared learning experience fits right in with the ethos of the new curriculum, says Ms Ferguson. "And we are enjoying the freedom the new outcomes give you. It means you can include loads of nice science. So where before we just looked at the structure and function of cells, we are now extracting DNA and making necklaces out of it.

"It all helps make science more fun, more enterprising and more real."

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