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Fitting so much in gene show

The best science shows are made from three ingredients seasoned with a dash of humour. Life's What You Make It, the new show on genetics devised by the Edinburgh International Science Festival for its touring schools programme, has two of the vital ingredients in abundance: interesting science and an entertaining performance. Pedagogy is the third ingredient.

The attention of the youthful audience at Smithycroft Secondary in Glasgow is grabbed by the grace and athleticism of Nicky McCabe and Jennifer Paterson. Their gymnastic rendition of the dance of the double helix, as the performers model the replication of DNA, is breathtaking.

But although the science is fascinating, there is simply too much of it. This is where a liberal dollop of pedagogy would have helped.

The science of genes - the units of instruction for building the bodies of every living thing - is set to transform all our lives. Societies are about to be hit by a revolution in medicine, industry and human relations for which few are prepared. So this new show is a timely and important addition to the festival's repertoire.

The best place to begin genetics is not with the gene or the genetic code and the nitrogenous bases - adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine - that form its alphabet. Beginning with the biochemistry makes genetics a harder subject.

A pedagogically sound approach to basic genetics would roughly parallel the subject's historical development. Scientists discovered a great deal about inheritance long before Francis Crick and James Watson described the structure of DNA in 1953. It is this - since it concerns obvious body features such as eyes, hair and ears - that children can relate to.

Some of the show's scenes are so enjoyable that they are allowed to go on too long. The sequence that models the action of recessive genes as faulty telephone lines could have been half as long. It would have been less fun, but less confusing.

However, Christine Hair, Smithycroft's principal teacher of biology, is less critical. "The structure of DNA doesn't come in till Higher, but after this it will ring a lot of bells with the kids. And they can relate to all the inheritance stuff now. They've got used to videos and CD-Roms, but a live show like this is really memorable. If you ask them a few years from now, I'm sure they'll still be able to tell you something about genetics."

Simon Gage, the director of the festival, is unequivocal. "When the Science Festival visits a school we are there not to teach but to inspire. If we can help children develop an interest in science and technology ... we are succeeding."

But this seems unambitious, as well as being a false dichotomy. It is possible to teach science and inspire youngsters at the same time - the best teachers do every day. So do the best science shows.

The science festival is raising funding from industry to help it deliver free science shows to schools in deprived areas. The Power of 10 Club, backed by businesses such as BT, Cisco and ICL, should enable performances in 240 extra schools this year.

Douglas Blane For information on the Power of 10 Club, tel 0131 530 2001For details of the festival's touring schools shows, tel 0131 260 5859

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