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Living science is all the rage

Following a string of popular science-based television programmes, the people of Dundee are queueing up for public lectures. Miranda Fettes reports

In an age when television, radio, the internet and the printed word dominate our access to information, public lectures may seem a little old-fashioned. But in Dundee last month, people had to be turned away from a public lecture because it was oversubscribed.

The venue was Dundee College's Kingsway campus, where 140 people attended the lecture on forensic science.

Due to its popularity and success, Dundee College, together with partners Dundee University, the University of Abertay Dundee and the city council communities department, has decided to put on a series of public lectures on popular aspects of science.

"It is surely ironic that in this day and age such an old-fashioned format, a person addressing a hall full of people, could land the organisers in the embarrassing situation of having to turn people away," says Dundee College spokesman Bill Dower, who is delighted by the public response to the lectures.

"It was perhaps a common occurrence 40 years ago, before the advent of digital TV and other hi-tech home entertainment systems."

David Gourley, team leader in science at Dundee College, was thrilled with the turnout at the first lecture, which was delivered by Tim Thompson of Dundee University's forensic pathology department.

"It was more than full; it was bursting," says Dr Gourley. "I had a suspicion that it would be really popular because it's a very popular subject at the moment."

The people who attended were, he says, a cross-section from different backgrounds and age groups. "It's a combination of people in the community who have a personal interest, people who are interested in following a career path and a number of older people who want to expand their knowledge. The youngest person was 14, and there were a lot of pensioners too."

The second lecture, entitled "Science Magic", examined what Dr Gourley calls "the whizz-bang aspect of science". A team of academics from Dundee College and the University of Abertay Dundee performed a gunpowder demonstration and explained the science behind explosives, fluorescence and some aspects of electricity with live demonstrations and explosions.

Dr Gourley had been expecting another large turnout and was not disappointed. The lecture theatre was almost full, in spite of bad weather.

"We're testing the water to get the right format and make them not too long to keep the public interest," explains Dr Gourley. "The whole idea is to make them accessible. They should be light and funny and highly visual."

Other lectures are planned in psychology, astronomy and seismology.

"We think it's a good hook to pull people in to encourage people to take an interest in science. We exploit the popular interest," says Dr Gourley, citing television programmes such as the BBC's Silent Witness and Channel 4's series Anatomy for Beginners, in which controversial German anatomist Gunther von Hagens performed human dissections to demonstrate the mechanics of movement, circulation, digestion and reproduction.

The Dundee lectures are part of the project Forward into Science and Engineering, which received pound;294,000 over two years from the European Social Fund.

As another part of the project, Dundee College has been hosting taster courses in community centres lasting six to eight weeks.

"It's part of an overall drive to foster an interest in science and to make science accessible to all," says Dr Gourley. "We look at subjects that are of popular interest. People get to indulge in the practical side to science."

Taster courses which, like the lectures, are free to the public, have covered forensic and health science. Others, in anatomy and environmental science, will continue until October.

"Dundee College is educating the community and making them aware of what we can do for them and the possibilities for them at colleges and universities," says Dr Gourley. "Colleges have always taken community education seriously."

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