Alive and very active

29th December 2000 at 00:00
Enthuse young scientists by introducing some contemporary role models, urges Paul Wilcox

Here is a short exercise: write down the names of as many famous scientists as you can in one minute. The chances are that your list will contain one or more of the following: Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Faraday and Einstein. You may also have included Archimedes, Kepler, Mendel, Curie and Dalton. Only two of them - Einstein and Curie - lived and worked in the 20th century. Did you include any living scientists? Stephen Hawking, Susan Greenfield, Robert Winston and Steve Jones are some of scientists alive today who are most likely to appear on the list. If you asked 12 or 13-year-olds to name a living scientist what names would they give, if any?

The plain fact is that even very distinguished scientists are unknown outside a restricted group of people - unless they appear regularly on television. Take Nobel Prize winners. Four British scientists became Nobel Prize laureates in chemistry in the 1990s, but few people could tell you who they are. Yet the Nobel Prize is the intellectual equivalent of a gold medal at the Olympics. We ought to know who these people are.

It was this belief that gave rise to the education initiative called Acclaim. The project is a collaboration between the Royal Society and the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University. It is producing teaching resources for secondary schools based on the work of three scientists. Much of the material is aimed at key stage 3, and especially the new Ideas and Evidence section of Sc1, which includes the statement: "Pupils should be taught about the ways in which scientists work today." What better than to ask some of the leading experts in their field to explain what they do?

Ever since its foundation in 1663 the Royal Society has counted among its Fellows and foreign members most of the best scientists in the world. The scientists featured in Acclaim are all Fellows of the Royal Society, undoubtedly very distinguished, but not household names. It is hoped that pupils will get to know a little more about them and perhaps begin to think about science as a career. They are Professor Frances Ashcroft, director of the Oxford Centre for Gene Function at Oxford University; Sir Paul Nurse, director general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund; and Professor Stephen Sparks, director of the Centre for Environmental and Geophysical Flows at Bristol University.

Frances Ashcroft studies diabetes. She is trying to find out what causes the hormone insulin to be released by cells when glucose levels in the blood are raised. She studies type-2 diabetes and has been able to show how ion channels are involved in the secretion of insulin.

Paul Nurse studies the genetics of cell division. His recent research has shown that the controls of these processes are basically the same in all living things. He has been carrying out experiments on yeast cells for more than 25 years and now uses them to study how cancer cells divide and grow into a tumour.

Stephen Sparks is a volcanologist. He was one of the first people to evolve theories about hy volcanoes erupt in different ways and to test these theories with laboratory experiments and computer models. Asked about his most important discovery, Stephen Sparks says: "I was involved in working out the reasons why volcanic explosions sometimes produce huge eruption columns, and at other times very hot flows along the ground (pyroclastic flows)."

The scientists collaborated with the Acclaim team to produce the curriculum materials. They suggested experiments that school pupils could do but which are not found in school textbooks.

For example, much of Paul Nurse's work concerns cell division, an important topic in the science national curriculum. Cancer cells divide uncontrollably, and so understanding the mechanism of cell growth and division is clearly important in finding ways to treat or prevent cancer. The gene that controls cell division is the same in all cells. By damaging this gene in yeast cells he simulates the way cancer cells divide and grow into a tumour. The mutated yeast is easy to produce and completely safe to use. This yeast is to be made available to schools by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund through a supplier, so pupils will be able to look at cell division under different conditions using these same cells.

The resources will be published as a pack of photocopiable worksheets in March. Acclaim is building a website at which will contain curriculum materials that won't be int he teaching pack. Questionnaires were sent to a selection of scientists, asking such questions as:

* How old were you when you became interested in science?

* What were your interests and hobbies as a teenager?

* What qualities do you think are needed to solve a scientific problem?

* Which scientist do you most admire and why?

* How do you relax?

* Which scientific discoveries would you like to see take place this century?

Some of the questions came from school pupils as part of a pilot study for the project.

You will be able to see how such scientists as Julia Higgins, Lewis Wolpert and Sir Alec Jeffreys responded by visiting the website's section called Ask a Scientist.

Stephen Sparks's answers are already on the site: he says he became interested in science at age 13, when his hobbies included going to the football and exploring old Roman lead mines on holiday. This is part of what he says about solving a scientific problem: "Some scientists are good observers; some may be careful experimenters; others may be good at maths and theory. A lot of science these days requires teamwork..."

The three Acclaim scientists will be giving talks around the country, and members of their research teams will be conducting workshops in schools. They will each appear in the Channel 4 Learning series Living Science starting on January 19.

Dr Paul Wilcox is a lecturer at the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University.The Acclaim pack, pound;12.50, will be available from the Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University, Norfolk Building Sheffield S1 1WB. More Details: Julie Jordan, tel: 0114 225 4877

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