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No longer just jam and Jerusalem;FE Focus

Martin Whittaker discovers why the WI is turning to test-tubes in National Science Engineering and Technology Week.

Christine Stanbanks rummages through an assortment of jam jars, pill containers, wires and plastic bottles that would put Blue Peter to shame. She pulls out two pencils, sharpened at both ends. She sticks them through a piece of cereal box, immerses them in a jar of water, and wires the tops to a pair of batteries.

After a few seconds, tiny bubbles appear on the pencil tips in the water. "There," she says with evident satisfaction. "A couple of pencils, and you can look at splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Christine, from Corse in Gloucestershire, is science co-ordinator for the Women's Institute in the South-west. And the bits and pieces littering her dining table are part of a "science box" she has produced to demonstrate the fundamentals of electricity.

She has just received a grant from the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) to supply these kits to WI groups throughout England and Wales.

It is part of a surge in interest in science in the WI which will surprise many who still see the movement merely in terms of jam and Jerusalem. These days, WI members are more likely to be exploring the chemistry rather than the art of jam-making, or learning about the properties of the flour that makes their cakes.

And while it's a giant leap from quilt-making to quantum mechanics, the science box is a good starting point, says Christine. "I call this a starter kit for those who haven't done science, and a reminder for those who have forgotten it."

As well as her electricity box, she demonstrates a chemistry kit, first developed for the WI by the University of East Anglia. Hers is in a small wicker gift basket and most of the contents are everyday household objects - sandwich-paste pots, cut-down plastic water bottles, tooth-picks, cotton buds, washing soda, vinegar. There's even a Smarties tube to keep the pipettes in.

"I soak red cabbage in boiling water to extract cabbage juice," says Christine Stanbanks. "That's the indicator that we use. By changing colour, this can indicate whether an item is acid or alkaline or neutral, depending on what you're looking at.

"We try to use everyday things. This is the whole basis of getting our members interested in science. Some of them didn't do it at school. Some did it and forgot it. And a lot of people think science is something for the egghead - the university graduate.

"Yet we are being asked every day to make decisions based on science, whether it's genetic engineering, foodstuffs, medicines - even whether we should be running cars given increasing pollution levels."

The current promotion of science in the WI goes back to 1992 when a three-day course called "Science, You and Everyday Life" was launched at the WI's residential college, Denman College in Oxford.

It was so successful that a science co-ordinator was appointed for each of the six WI regions in England and Wales, and then a local science co-ordinator appointed for each of the counties.

The result has been a definite growth in interest in science and technology within the WI. Now the organisation is busy developing its own website.

Beryl Allan, chair of the WICOPUS planning group, says: "Some areas are far more active than others, but nevertheless it's spreading. We're dealing with a membership of more than a quarter of a million women, many of whom have had no opportunity to have any science education at all. They belong to the generation where science was for the boys. Girls weren't considered clever enough.

"It's very difficult promoting science if you're not in the scientific world, very difficult getting the general public involved. You call a meeting and nobody turns up. With the WI, we have a captive audience. A WI - probably 30 people - will meet once a month and there's always a speaker, so you are able to get among the grass roots. The whole basis of the WI is education."

Some of the WI's science courses have wonderful titles that manage to preserve that sterling, chutney-making spirit - such titles as "Fine Grains Give Fine Flour", about the science of flour, or "Fact, Dream and Nightmare", a day's course devoted to the mysteries of genetic engineering.

Members in Bristol have been able to partake in a "Sherry and Science Day", and there has been a course in "Leeches and Magic Bullets" about medicine past and present.

There is practical work, too. The WI is setting up Streamwatch UK, a network of members with a scientist in charge who will monitor local water sources. Working with the water companies, they will provide regular data on the pollution of a stream or water course.

Both Beryl Allan and Christine Stanbanks have scientific backgrounds. Christine was a lab technician in the food industry and at a technical college. And Beryl was a technical officer in the Army and studied the physics of radar at university.

"Through this science initiative, we have discovered that there are a reasonable number of our members who have scientific qualifications but have come to the WI to learn other skills," she said.

"We are looking at accreditation for some of our courses, but they're only three or four days. It's very much a matter of awakening people's interest, and giving them the contacts so they can carry on the interest.

But Beryl Allan denies that the push in science and technology will bring a change of image for the WI. "We're quite happy with jam and Jerusalem - we're very proud of that image - but there's much more to the WI than that.

"There's science in everything. We've got a terrific sport section - one of our members even did the science of dart-throwing.We're all voluntary, we're all individuals and we each go our own way, but the common aim is to try and increase the awareness of science and technology in everyone's life."

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